Anniversarium cover art

This page contains the text of Anniversarius: The Book of Autumn prior to its revision in August-September 2011. A number of the poems have been expanded and revised, with more poems added in the fourth edition in 2013. See catalog information below:


BRETT RUTHERFORD's ANNIVERSARIUS: THE BOOK OF AUTUMN. 4TH EXPANDED EDITION
PLUS NEW DELUXE COLOR EDITION. Cover Image

Now in its fourth edition and vastly expanded, Anniversarius: The Book of Autumn is Brett Rutherford's 40-poem epic cycle of autumn-themed poems. Although there is plenty of Shelley, Poe, and Bradbury here in the celebration of “autumn’s being,” this cycle encompasses works that are mythic, metaphysical, political, satirical and, of course, supernatural.
Autumn becomes the landscape for Jan Palach’s suicide in Soviet-invaded Czechoslovakia in 1969; for translations of Pushkin and Hugo; and for rhapsodic and moody invocations of fall in Western Pennsylvania (the poet’s birthplace) and haunted New England (his adopted home). Greek myth comes in by way of a hymn to Rhea, the Oak Tree Goddess, an encounter with three oak nymphs, and a dinner party in Hades.
Rutherford walks in the footsteps of Poe in New York City, and sets two other powerful poems in Manhattan: one a panorama of historic Madison Square Park, and a troubled visit in the aftermath of 9/11.
Influenced by Poe, Shelley, Whitman, Jeffers, Hugo, Bradbury, and Greek classics, these poems present a cosmos tinged with autumnal sadness, yet they are brave with the delight in a life fully relished down to the last falling leaf. Although solitude and loss stalk through these pages, there are also poems expressing a defiant, transcendent spirit. Each of the two “Rings” of the work ends with powerful affirmation. The locales of the latest poems include New York, Providence, rural Pennsylvania, the planets Mars and Pluto, and Ming Dynasty China.
This book is meant to be relished slowly, to be read aloud and savored for music as well as meaning. Each poem stands alone as an “anniversary,” yet the cycle as a whole is Romantic in sweep, its structure like that of two successive long symphonies.
This landmark of autumnal poetry is available for free download in PDF format.

ISBN 0-922558-71-X   4th edition, revised and expanded, February 2013. 170 pp., $24.95. Deluxe color edition replaces the previous black-and-white version: same as the standard edition above, but with all photos and illustrations in full color. CLICK BELOW to order the print edition from Amazon. Or, purchase the PDF ebook in glorious color for $5.00.

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Anniversarius: The Book of Autumn by Brett Rutherford



TABLE OF CONTENTS

RING 1

Between the Pages -- A prologue.

Autumn Elegy — The first snow falls, its only witnesses a young poet and an anxious rabbit by a cold lake shore.

In Prague, A Tree of Many Colors — Russia invades Czechoslovakia, and a student sets himself on fire in protest.

The Island — Mysterious longings carry the poet off to Manhattan.

Autumn Songs -- Strange love songs, lyrical, transcendental.

With Poe, On Morton Street Pier -- The poet follows in Edgar Poe's footsteps along the Hudson River.

The Pumpkined Heart -- Longing for a distant autumn landscape.

Let Winter Come -- A stubborn poem from a depressed time.

I Persist in Green -- A mysterious poem about a tree whose leaves will not turn, and about the even more mysterious Stranger the tree awaits.

October Reckonings -- The same poem written forwards and backwards..."All lonely autumns are alike."

The Grim Reaper -- A face-to-face unpexpected meeting with Death, but "my time is not yet come."

Dead Leaves the Emblems Truest -- A defiant, romantic poem, ripping apart all the conventional wisdom about immortality.

Green Things Are Melancholy -- A cynical, nasty poem, like having tea and cookies with Ambrose Bierce.

Autumn Portents -- War was coming, the sun had measles, the ocean was clogged with deadly algae...

Two Full Moons in October -- A two-werewolf month was in store!

The Orionid Meteors -- In honor of October's meteor shower.

October Is Coming! -- The poet begins his New England adventure.

The State versus Autumn --When Congress outlaws Halloween...

Son of Dracula -- From the poet's Appalachian childhood...

Not Years Enough -- Too many books to read...

The Sailor and the Oak Nymphs -- Three maidens from Greek mythology.

End of the World -- What if the people turned colors and blew away instead of the leaves? ...

The Outsider -- The poet's spiritual autobiography.

Fragments of a Hymn to Rhea, the Oak Tree Goddess -- Heavy-duty Greek mythology here, based on the oldest lore of the Titans.

Runaways -- The trees are vanishing, and no one can explain it...

In Chill November -- This late in the year, how can you tell the dead trees from the living which have merely shed their leaves?

The Fence -- The poet returns to his college haunts and finds the colonial cemetery desecrated — by the town fathers.

To the Arc of the Sublime -- Sitting by the banks of the Seekonk River in Rhode Island, experiencing a vision of the cosmos.

RING2 -- NEW POEMS.

The Creepers -- On a long-ago Halloween night, an over-sensitive poet realizes that there's something wrong with that ivy coming up the wall...

Loved Ones -- Remembering past affections, past obsessions, and the fact the emotions never really die.

Autumn on Mars -- For Ray Bradbury, the King of Autumn, this new fantasy about Martians frightening their children by telling them about the coming invaders from a placed called Earth...

Autumn Storm -- A fierce October thunderstorm hits, and the poet is haunted by his entry into the world of Chinese ares and literature.

On Receiving A Gift of Books in Early October -- An experimental poem, written while inspecting the contents of a carton of gift books. The challenge-- respond to each book examined and connect them all into the overall autumnal theme -- no revisions, no second thoughts permitted.

Autumn Sundays in Madison Square Park -- A poem in a new metric scheme (but without rhyme), combining impressions of New York's beautiful Madison Square Park over several years.

September in Gotham -- The poet returns to New York at the end of September 2001, to find a city still in mourning. Instead of autumn leaves, thousands of pages showing the faces of victims of the World Trade Center catastrophe, are blown about in the autumn winds.

Autumn— A Fragment by Alexander Pushkin. A new translation/paraphrase of Pushkin's unfinished 1833 autumnal masterpiece.

October Thoughts in Wartime— Halloween Night, 2003, a starlit walk, a tolling church bell, and the realization that this is "wartime."

The Black Huntsman— Translation of a very political poem by Victor Hugo. The poem, reviling the tyrannical Napoleon III, gets an update here, just before the 2008 Presidential election.


BETWEEN THE PAGES

All that I am is here,
even if what I am
eludes you.

I am pressed here
between these pages —
petals and stamen,
dust and pollen,
veined leaf

What scent
upon the yellowed page?
Try sandalwood and pine,
patchouli and mummy powder,
singed moth,
shadow of raptor wing,
a raven's passing,
a flit of bat,
a memory of lilacs.

You read my lines,
inhale me,
repeating my words,
my broken thoughts.

I am on your lips,
I fill the air
with green tea tension,
spark from your hair
to the nearest conductor,
then up and out the window.

Sing me to sparrows!
Teach the ravens
my autumn madness!
Recite to owls
my midnight charms!

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S  -  I
AUTUMN ELEGY

The snow has come. The swirling flakes self-immolate
on hot maple grove, white-fringe the aging auburn oaks,
a coin drop from winter into the glacial lake.
(Cold comes so early here — September frost invades
the harvesting and gives the roses heart attacks.)
The boreal wind has taken up residence,
has seized the calendar in icy clench. The hat
I haven't seen since spring comes down-I undertake
a day-long search for hibernating gloves and boots.
My scarf has stolen off — I know not where. The mouse,
the gray one my cat keeps catching and letting go,
darts to and fro on the kitchen floor — does he know
the hard light's reckoning? Does bone-deep chill at dawn
enbolden him this once for daylight foraging?
(We have an arrangement on the winter's supplies:
he comes out at night and he and I know full well
that whatever is not locked is not wanted, fair game
for a gray mouse.) He nudges a cast-off crust,
noses for crumbs, his whiskers italicizing
the advent of hunger, his tail a question mark
interrogating me about the wayward sun.

Alone in frost, I take my place at the lake,
my solitude complete, my steps the first to break
the pathway to the pebbled shore. I stand alone,
until the rabbit peers out from the graveyard grass —
twice now he’s been there among the mummied lilies,
his eye, as mine, upon the never placid waves.
The summer boats are gone. White ducks that waded here
are huddled now beneath the bridge, far downstream.
The other birds have packed their bags — they have left us
their broken shells, their desolated nests, their songs
a carbon copy of a twice-repeated tale.  
Lord Lepus, what do you know of impending ice?
Do you suspect the cirrus-borne snow's arrival?
Will you find greens enough beneath the snow bank?

We turn our mutual ways — you to your warren
amid the husks and roots and toppled gravestones —
I must go to book and breakfast. I leave the trees,
fond frame of my eye's delight, putting behind me
the cup of lake that always welcomes each sunrise.
Soon now its eye will be blinded, a cataract
reflecting sheet-white nothingness. I walk through town,
across the college grounds where last night's wind's caprice
made here a pristine bed of snow — yet over there
an untouched riot of maple on still-green lawn.
The carillon tolls the beginning of the day;
the students hurry, dumbfounded at virgin snow.
I am the only one to linger here. I stand
upon a carpet of red, soft, ancient leaves: some,
some are green yet, they are still proud,
they are fallen on the wings of their youth
and they are going to pick up anytime now
and fly back—
I am mourning for them,
for them, for you, for my brothers who have
fallen.

--October 31, 1968, Edinboro, Pennsylvania, revised 1995, 1996

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - I I
IN PRAGUE, A TREE
OF MANY COLORS

for Jan Palach, Czech martyr,
who set himself on fire January 16, 1969
to protest the occupation of his country

I am born, I am sown.
I am screaming as the sun tropes me out of the earth.
I am dragging in my tendrils the hopes of spring,
I am pulled, exhorted into summer. The light
deceives me with its deaths and resurrections.
I must be straight. I must not believe
the mocking sun and its revolutions.
I must wait for the ultimate paradise,
the world's light redistributed for all.

Much passes beneath my shadow:
crowds press to marriages and funerals —
the upright grooms go in,
the silver-handled caskets come out,
the church, the state, the people
move on in soot and sorrow, day to day.

Why do these people whisper always?
Why do so many avert their eyes from me?
Why does neighbor spy on his neighbor,
reporting every oddity to the men in black?
Why do I hear the rumble of thunder?
Why does the symphony break off?
Why have the women gone to the cellars?
Soldiers and tanks are everywhere!
The streets are full of Russians and Poles,
Hungarians, Bulgarians, East Germans —
all of East Europe has come to crush us!
Men with fur hats speak swollen, Slavic words.

Death is here. The smell of blood is here.
My roots touch the entrails of the hastily buried.
Anger is everywhere. I hold my leaves,
make camouflage for lovers, conspirators.
Students rip down the street signs
and hide them in my upper boughs —
the invaders drive in circles
and cannot find their destinations.
I open my bark for secret messages,
encourage pigeons to carry the word
of where is safe and who is betrayed.
Here comes that student, Jan Palach,
the ardent one, the solitary dreamer.
He stuffs his coat with my fallen leaves,
fills his cap, book bag and pockets with them.
He is the icon of our unhappiness:
he will open like a triptych of gold
into a flame that will embarrass the sun.
When he exfoliates in gasoline
I am with him, burning, burning,
leaf by dry leaf exploding for liberty.

--October 1969, New York, revised 1986, rewritten 1996

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -   I I I
THE ISLAND

The island beckons. Trees strain
to hold their harvest, tug back
as chilling wind seduces leaves
to snap and break away.

My leaf is not wanted —
too strange for its fellows,
its angles odd, its song
too weird and wordy,
too full of bats and moonlight.

The island beckons. A hawk,
descending, tears me free—
umbilical to oak is severed
as tender talons seize me.

Yet even raptor releases me:
my planes are wrong —
oblique, I tumble windward,
touching down nowhere,
solo among enlisted legions,
not fitting any leaf pile.
No hand will hold me —
the island beckons.

I land upon the pavement.
I sense I belong here,
that I will give this crystal place
my autumn madness.

Decked in October
  the island beckons.
Others will come!

--1968-1969, Edinboro/New York; rewritten 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -   I V
AUTUMN SONGS

1

Now Autumn chills the treetops and the red flare
of my October is the herald of new deaths,
exciting yellow plummets, ultimate green embraces,
consummate past tenses, dying chlorophyll,
    and so, love,
and I join flamboyant divers, break with the past
    of my sustenance,
    and so, love.
I rise from the summers of deep forgetfulness.

Inside my book the lovers have grown thin and dry.
    They crumble at my touch, my tongue
    finds not the lips nor flush of loin,
    but breaks from them decay's red ash,
    dust on the earth that all may walk upon.

2

Come that downward plummet of the world
and the stone gray sun's last sigh,
somewhere I will be waiting at the end,
be time or age of death the house of my
endurance, I am assured of biding you.
For in the waning orbit of your life, I am
that one and only who loving you
more than yourself, will be left by you;
    but with some gravitation
more divine than will I watch your ellipse
fade, and spend my scant affections
as the dying sun warms with his own
last fire the fleeting earth.

--October 1969, New York  

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  V
WITH POE, ON MORTON STREET PIER

Sunset at the Manhattan piers: gray-black,
the iron-cloaked sky splays vortices of red
into the Hudson's unreflecting flow.
Blown west and out by a colorless breeze,
the candle of life falls guttering down
into a carmine fringe above oil tanks,
a warehoused cloud of umber afterglow,
hugging the scabrous shore of New Jersey,
a greedy smoker enveloped in soot.

To think that Poe and his consumptive Muse
stood here in April, Eighteen Forty-Four,
his hopes not dashed by a rainy Sunday-
an editor thrice, undone, now derelict,
author of some six and sixty stories,
his fortune four dollars and fifty cents.
Did he envision his ruin, and ours?
Did his eureka-seeking consciousness
see rotted piers, blackened with creosote?
Did rain and wind wash clean the Hudson's face,
or was it already an eel-clogged flux
when he came down the shuddering gangplank?

Who greeted him? This feral, arched-back cat,
fish-bone and rat-tail lord of the landing?
Did he foresee the leather'd lonely wraiths
who'd come to the abandoned wharf one day
in a clank-chain unconscious parody
of drugged and dungeon-doomed Fortunato
and his captor and master Montresor?

He gazed through rain and mist at steeple tops,
warehouse and shop and rooming house — to him
our blackened brickwork was El Dorado.
He needed only ink to overcome
the world of Broadway with his raven quills —
Gotham would pay him, and handsomely, too!
Did the lapping waters deceive him thus —
did no blast of thunder peal to warn him
that this was a place of rot and rancor?

The city shrugs at the absolute tide.
I am here with all my poems. I, too,
have only four dollars and fifty cents
until tomorrow's tedium pays me
brass coins for passionless hours of typing.
I am entranced as the toxic river
creeps up the concrete quay, inviting me,
a brackish editor hungry for verse,
an opiate and an end to breathing.

Beneath the silted piles, the striped bass spawn,
welfare fish in their unlit tenements.
A burst of neon comes on behind me,
blinks on the gray hull of an anchored ship —
green to red to blue light, flashback of fire
from window glaze, blinking a palindrome
into this teeming, illiterate Styx.

The Empire State spire, clean as a snowcap
thrusts up its self-illuminated glory;
southward, there's Liberty, pistachio
and paranoid in her sleepless sunbeams,
interrogated nightly, not confessing.
It is not too dark to spy one sailboat,
passing swiftly, lampless, veering westward;
one black-winged gull descending to water,
immersing its quills in the neon mirror.

Now it is dark. Now every shadow here
must warily watch for other shadows
(some come to touch, to be touched, but others — )
I stay until the sea chill shrivels me,
past the endurance of parting lovers,
beyond the feral patience of the cat,
until all life on legs has crept away.

Still, I am not alone. The heavy books
I clasp together, mine and Edgar Poe's,
form a dissoluble bond between us.
Poe stood here and made a sunset midnight.
Poe cast his raven eyes into this flow
and uttered rhymes and oaths and promises.
One night, the river spurned his suicide.
One night, the river was black with tresses,
red with heart's blood, pearled with Virginia's eyes,
taking her under, casting him ashore.
One night, he heard an ululating sob
as the river whispered the secret name
by which its forgetful god shall know him,
his name in glory on the earth's last day.

--New York, October 20,1970, revised 1984, 1993; rewritten in 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S  - V I
THE PUMPKINED HEART

Somewhere, the moon is red and cornstalks lean
with the wind in plucked fields. Not in New York,
city of bleached stone and desperate trees,
is my long walk of haystacks, fog in ascent,
not where traffic sings its sexless honking
can anyone mark the dim-out of frogs,
the dying off of dragonfly wingbeats.

I am pulled up — I levitate, October tugged,
away from the rat-doomed isle
clearing the water tanks and steeple tops,
held fast on course by Orion's glimmer,
the angry scorpion tail fast behind me.
With leaves and dust I fly to the lake shore,
to the pumpkined heart, the base and the root,
the earth I touch as pole and battery.

I love this village, though it loves not me;
remember it, though it erases me.
I mark in my life, how I bear and remember
Octobers, and I know that a year is judged
by how it dies in these treetops: if it is burned
to cloud the eyes of men, or if it lies, burst
red in its full regale, waiting for snow,
        and the worms
and the spring, yes, to feed a new sun!

Earth, I am an ochre sheet of your leaves,
leaves more frequent than men in my lines,
leaves more fertile than mothers can be, leaves,
red, yellow, ambitious, how you have crept!
Leaves who have chilled my undraped lovers at night,
leaves sharing graveyard solemn caress with my lips,
leaves recurring everywhere to say their red gossip,
leaves for all I know returning again to this fall,
   to this place, still blushing to recount
   how lovers were spent in their bed,
   leaves forever spelling the name of lost love!

You names that rise to my lips on October nights,
    you sleep-thieving echoes of aspirant heart,
    rise from the sealed tomb of years, drag shroud,
    where no leaves chatter nor branches impede
    dead, in the track of stalking remembrance — you
    who wake me alone in my grave, grave bed to recall
         each passionate urge from green twig.

Each, each and all have grown red,
    defiant in the drugged fall,
denying parentage in terrible wind,
    nonetheless breaking free,
falling to my love in your high flame,  
    red, then wet,
moist in your sombre dissent, then dry, then dead,
then in my hand the brown dust     
    that a seed should come to,
a leaf forever spelling the name of lost love!

--New York, October 12, 1971; revised 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - V I I
LET WINTER COME

I have been here a quarter century —
now let me rest! let my contrary self
be silent this once — this year
no fancy from my leafy quill.
The lake will eat leaves without my lines;
the unacknowledged cold drops to the bone
from equinox whether or not
an anthem welcomes it.

Hear me, friend: I will not send you dead trees,
the frost no longer paints me orange.
I dodge the four winds' summons, evade
the draft of winter's war, refuse
to slurry down autumn with napalm frost.

My pen is dry.
Whole forms no spring can disinter
scream past me into shallow graves —
leaf-flake to vein to dust,
love springs from vernal lust
to tumble-leaf forgetfulness.
With summer gone, the past
is verdigris and peeling rust
a boneyard of false embraces
and terrified flight —
I shall be silent,
sliding down autumnless to snow,
ghostless on sainted All Souls' Eve,
sans pumpkins and tilted corn,
hymnless on harvest feast, chiding
the moon in slugdown count to twelfth-
month solstice and caroling.

Let winter come,
if it must.
I grow old in these leaves, like an old
mattress this ground has humored me.

The Muse of the acorn
is baffled by my silence.
What is there to sing?
I walk by their houses, whom I love.
I watch them fold into the shadows
until the blinkout freezes me.

Now I have nothing to say.
Why, leaves, do you follow me,
cling to my shoes and trouser cuffs,
skitter across the bridge before me,
laugh at my failed romance, shiver
me in this single bed and book?

Poor leaf, do you wonder
I will not write of you?
You know me too well, you know
at the end I will not scorn to love you
though I protest tonight.
The tree that bore you
knows I will come to lean on it,
waiting for dawn in the lake-edge snow.
Bereft of leaf and lover we'll watch
as lying Venus casts her pall on ice.
Why write a song that no one will hear,
love poems that make their object
    run for the horizon?
Leave me, autumn! Silence, winds!
Abandon, birds, these wretched trees!
Here are the pen, the ink, the paper,
   the empty virgin expanse —
   the lines pulling me like magnets —
No! no! I have nothing to say —
I will not write this poem.

--1972, New York; revised 1983; revised 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S  -  V I I I
I PERSIST IN GREEN

Here on this hill there was no blossom time.
Though all was green, no nectar bee went forth
to fetch his fellows for a harvesting.
The scavengers give me a bleak report,
avoid my limbs where neither fruit nor nut
nor even bitter berries fall to ground.
I wait, still green with poetry, still wrapped
this autumn in dreams of Eden's April.
I am denied the killing kiss of frost —
one of a kind, I must stand sentinel,

watching as all the other trees go gray,
stripped bare by teasing wind, their naked arms
a stark and spindly silhouette on clouds.
I listen to their brittle colloquy,
see through and beyond their herded huddling
the universe their summer glyph concealed.

The sun and stars have dragged the fruiting urge
to climes unseen, but I persist in green.
I wave my rustling, needled arms aloft,
exude a youthful fragrance, still let the sap
fill my old head with springtime dalliance.

I call in thousands of lonely sparrows,
converse with the unwanted beggar birds,
invite the nests of those who stayed behind,
ignoring the season's bleak intelligence.
Stay here, hawk-free and sheltered from the storm!
Our wormless winter, though lean as a bone
is spent with friend and feather, not alone.

Should I envy the others — the red-flagged
maples, the golden willows, browning oaks?
Is nakedness to wind more honest, then?
Are roots more wise when bald of leaves above?

Look at those tattered and abandoned nests!
Read me — my rings can prove and testify
Whose way of wint'ring is the better lot!

The slanting, icy sun accuses me,
fringes with frostbite my emerald crown.
No fevered red, no golden rash, no brown
of rust has marred me — let winter come!
Should I not fear the hubris-humbling flood,
the thrust of fire from angry thunderers?
Am I too boastful of my isolate,
self-centered endurance? No god has come
to topple me, no hatchet-man has climbed
to mark or cut me for cabin timber.

One thing there is that can make me tremble:
I have dreamt of the distant mountain range,
of hill beyond hill, and peak surmounting
peak, of crags an eagle dares not soar to,
of nameless unscaled turrets of granite.
On each there grows, as here, an untamed tree,
alone and defiant,  giant and free.

I dream, too, of an alpine wanderer,
whom I have ever loved, though never seen.
I bloom before the Passionate Stranger,
whose words bring news of my exiled brethren;
I bear strange fruit that falling, speaks and sings
new wonders to the astonished sparrows.
Then I blush red and amber and ochre,
shrugging my leaf-fall in a cry of joy.

We hold a strange communion, traveler
and tree. Kings of our kind, we cannot bow,
but lean into the wind together, twined
till cloth and bark, flesh and root-tap mingle.
To him, I make the wind that is Autumn;
to me, he makes the hope that will be Spring.
Holding dead leaves in one another's palms,
we are the sum of blossom, pollen, seed and fruit.
We are the thing we loved, the self made whole
by loss of self in love's surrendering.

-December 1973, Edinboro, Pennsylvania; rewritten in 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  I X
OCTOBER RECKONINGS

   (in the form of a mirror)

The seasons merge: from a sunless autumn,
to winter without snow. What month it is,
is anybody's guess. The yard goes dry,
the grapes cut back turn brittle; brown
sparrows tramp noisily for last desserts
on arbor top; ailanthus arms take on
a sere and whiter hue, no trace
of tropic sprays of verdure now, no flag
like native trees, of where the green had been
(perhaps they migrate and plant themselves
on other trees!) It is a time
of reckonings, to heap the harvest up
and count each gain against its cost.

Little it means to measure what was lost-
the never had's a finer feast to sup.
It has a wine (whoever sees
the cask forgets himself and imitates
its salty plaint) from where the grapes had been,
of tears and rust and vanities, no flag
sincere of deeds or worth, no brace
of reason's air; drinking us in it sprouts
its arrows from inside our hearts.
It speaks of love, its tendrils crown
arbors without leaves. What year is it?
All lonely autumns are alike
at winter's verge.

---December 19, 1976, New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X
THE GRIM REAPER

Autumn, and none too soon for me.
Bitter blasts unshingle the trees
and scatter the birds — the diminution
to bone branch by gale's tooth.

Ave! I welcome you, Red Harvester
of yet another year! I kindle fire
and hold my midnight watch atop a hill.

Ave! for everything awaits you:
the arbor picked clean of fruit,
the willows decked in banners of gold,
the windfall of currency
   from the abundant oaks.

Ave! Great Reaper who takes a year of everything.
Great Reaper who grinds the present to dust,
Great Reaper the only god (the others no more
than barricades you sweep aside, leaf dunes)

I see you. Your eyes play through me
    as easily
as sight itself moves through these barren trees.
You have no face. Two flames from out
your hooded darkness acknowledge me.
The scythe on which the world-end hone
but lately sang is in your hand.

My time is not yet come, thrice hailèd one.
I too must reap. I too must count the census
of lost leaves. My song must satisfy
before your hand can take the sheaf.
This space, this interstice between
the solstices is safe. My time
is not yet come.

--December 17, 1978, New York; revised 1981

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X I
DEAD LEAVES THE EMBLEMS TRUEST

 

Autumn
         love the Autumn
would fill the earth with perpetual
Autumn;
         if I were rich enough
I'd follow Autumn everywhere/
Paint my home in Shelley's orange
    and brown and hectic red;
rub tincture of turning leaves
onto my own limbs to motley
    my skin into a panoply
    of hues; buy potted trees
and fill my darkened rooms with them,
inject them full of October
until I lay ankle deep in fallings
of pages more wrinkled and withered
and crisped and sere than poor Poe's

Spring
    I salute only as birth-of-death
Summer
    its ripening
Autumn
    the fruit
Winter
    the ice-toothed bacchanal
    of rampant death

Dead leaves the emblems truest of what we are.
Cut to a rasping skeleton by time,
best in our wormwood age,
most useful to our kind
when closest to verge of nothingness.

How wise you are, detached
    at last from your origins,
borne by a wind that will not betray you,
confident, sun-singed, beyond all pain,
surging toward heaven without an enemy
    to hold you back, assured of what
is written in your own veined hand-
that you are a particle of glory
    returning to god.

To god? What folly! like old men whose legs
cannot support them you tumble down in heaps.
You burn in hecatombs, boots crush you to dust;
you are composted until the merest speck of you
is salt for the cannibal taproots of Spring.

Magnificent folly! For what is there at the end
of a billion misled heartbeats but this putting on
of shrouds? Should we not deck ourselves as well
as the oak tree, as maples jubilant,
or triumph-touched in willow's gold?

I think I shall be Autumn's minister.
Instead of those hearts torn out for the Aztec god
I offer up a basket of leaves; instead of blood
upon the butcher block of Abraham I slay
a wreath of myrtle and laurel boughs;
upon the thirsty cross I nail a scarecrow Christ,
a wicker man with leaf-catch crown of thorns-

It was the cross itself that died for us
    the man a nobody
         a killer carpenter

And folly still!
    The lightning limns the bare branch elm
    The hollow trunk howls thunder of its own
         to oust the thunder of god
    The slaked storm passes, the fire-striped
         masts of the earth-ship stand.

 Ear to the tree trunk, I hear the echo
         of the storm, the last tree-
         spoken words:
         There is no god.

There is no god, and when trees speak
The storm falls back in silence, shamed
    and reprobate.
There is no god, and when trees speak
    you kill them for the truth
    you cannot bear.

--June 14, 1981, Madison Square Park, New York City

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X I I
GREEN THINGS ARE MELANCHOLY

Some say these winter hills are sad.
I think not so.
                         Gray bark and snow
are just the world in homespun clad,

plain and simple, honest and bare
to branch and root,
                                 dry underfoot-
these are the ones who do not dare

rebellion or unruly flight.
The withered sleep,
                                 the dream they keep,
to them is wisdom's light.

Green is the melancholy hue:
seedling and twig,
                               blossom and sprig,
rioting upward, askew,

climbing aslant in May's folly
following one
                         devious sun—
how can this be melancholy?
Just ride the suicidal breeze:
seed-spewing trees,
                                lecherous bees,
the wingèd birds' hypocrisies —

These are false harbingers of joy.
What use are they?
                               Their vernal play
is but a manic's  fevered ploy.


Wait till the frost arrives — what then?
The birds fly south.
                                 The wizened mouth
Of fruit and flower saddens men

With bitter kisses youth should scorn —
The chill and numb
                                  chrysanthemum
as blanched and dry as ravaged corn —

The maples shorn have been undone —
The barren vine
                             a twisted line
of snake embracing skeleton

The lily stalks are cripple canes.
The pale worm flees
                                  the apple trees.
A gray mist fills the lanes.
                            
Green is the hue
          betraying you
for a handful of earth
         or a moment of dew!

--December 17, 1978, New York; revised 1981, 1993, rewritten in 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X I I I
AUTUMN PORTENTS

 

Nights
lengthening
world
turning the corner of
dusk light entropy —
tip-of-tongue Autumn
(my budding anniversarium):
root-clogged Manhattan
perched at leaf flood,
drinking its one
last sunset before the burst —
sunspot and solar flare
leaf-veining the sky.

A red tide gathers
off Lebanon's shore,

leaf turn into October's war.

---October 1, 1982, New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X I V
TWO FULL MOONS IN OCTOBER!

 

This double-mooned month
  full on the first
  doomed to be
  calends full again
in leaf-smoke aureole —
a double dose
of werewolf attacks,
crank cramped women,
a lunatick/tock calendar
assassinearthquake
poison pill panic
3-D knife-kill cinema

two madhouse moons
tipping the Libra scale

October
burning its leaves at both ends.

---October 4, 1982, New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X V
THE ORIONID METEORS

 

Nightfall of Orionids, fireworks unseen
above a city swathed in rain clouds,
stones torn from Haley's comet path
spice-frying ionosphere to carbon ash,
iron melting, quartz cracking and glowing red-
light show for the unseen Seer, dimming Aurora
at edge-slice dawn of yellow sun.

Spacefall of Orionids in October night!
Rock slabs from shattered worlds, gleaming in red,
blue-white and gold, amber and purest white,
turning in windless space and sunless careen,
each one a messenger of million-year age-
What were you? tombstone or cornerstone,
keystone or sidewalk slab? What kind of men
shaped you or mortared your intransigence
into a form of conscious will? What hands
took chisel and wrote a poem on you?

Leaf-fall of Orionids,
toss-tumble to hungry sun,
burn in the name of the world
that shed you, deciduous,
maple and oak and willow-
petrified!

--June 8, 1985, The Abode, New Lebanon, NY

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S   - X V I
OCTOBER IS COMING!

 

1

Listen! There is a sudden pause
between my words and the surrounding
silences: no breeze, no hum
of street lamps, no tread of tire —
even the birds have missed a beat.
It is the first self-conscious tinge
of maple leaf red, the first
night-chill of the season.
It is the caesura of equinox —
it whispers a prophecy:
October is coming.

It will not be like any other October.
You will be torn from the things that bind you.
You will follow a strange wind northward.
You will tread the edge of glaciers
  and blush with the iron tinge of destiny.
You will come to earth in a strange place
where you will be known as a leaf from an alien tree
    and be feared for it,
where you will seek the tongue-touch of another
    rasping exile — and find it.

Not for you the comfort of old trees,
    old branches, old roots —
now at last the buoyant freedom of the nearly
    weightless,
the eyrie-view above pine-tops, eddied above
    rain troughs and lightning rods,
bird-free,
drifting ghostlike and invisible on graveyard mound,
grazing the cheeks of grievers, pausing
    upon the naked backs of lovers,
tracing the mysterious barricades between
    the kingdoms of strays,
colliding with children in their chaotic play-

Hearing at night with brittle ears the plaintive sea,
    the wearing away of shoreline,
the woeful throb of the requiem of whales,
the madrigal of feeding gulls, the thrust beat
    of the albatross in its pinioned flight,
the hideous slurring of squids,
the inexorable gnashing of the machinery of sharks —

Mute, passive, dumb as a dead leaf
    you shall hear them all —

You shall move among the avalanche of first snow,
amazed at the shattering of perfect ice,
its joyous crystalline tone as it falls,
the utterly new dimension of its remaining,
endlessly crushed and compacted and moved,
singed to a fog and sublimed away
as if it had never been, while you
still lay like an old coat in a hamper —
grayer, crisper, more decrepit than ever.

And you suspect your lingering immortality-
a leaf, a brittle parchment that no one can read,
a shard, a skeleton of cellulose,
a thread, a string, a lichen roost, a birdnest lining,
a witness of ever-advancing decay and assimilation,
by becoming nothing, becoming everything.

2

Yet this is such an insubstantial fate.
I can think of it now in the context
    of this human frame,
hands to write it, lips to speak it
    as transcendental prophecy.
Not only the dead but the living
can pass to this realm beyond matter.
All who have lived or ever will are there already
but only one in a thousand suspects it.

Why, then, do I crave for touching,
for arm-enfolding tenderness on winter nights?
Why do I ache for the line of a slender neck,
a moist surrender, the firmness of flesh,
the drumbeat sonnet of another's heart
loud in my ears, the harmony
of pacing my breath to another's breath,
falling limbs entwined into a trusting sleep,
or waking first and thanking the gods
for this wall of life between me and uncertainty?

I do not know, except that love
is the fluid of the Muses,
the enhancer of meaning, chariot of purpose,
that one plus one is not two
    but infinity,

that entropy, this modern malaise
    of the wasting leaf
is the false side of the coin of nature —
base metal welded to hidden gold.

3

Listen! October is coming!
It will not be like any other October.
You will be torn from your ease and comfort
by the one who loves you. You will follow
a strange wind northward, not as surrender
to an autumn urge, but as a warrior
for Spring. Glaciers will shudder back
at the green fringe of your beard. Your smile
will make strangers trust you, ask to know
what manner of tree sends youthful emigrants —
even the dry-leaf exiles will stir at your arrival.
You shall not pass the winter in random flight,
    nor cling to the steeples and chimneytops.

Not for you the graveyard and its lying testaments,
not for you the vicarious touching of lovers and losers-

All shall know you and say of you:
Here is the one who loves and risks all.
You shall not heed the devious sea
and the night-call of Neptune's ravenous hosts.
The owl, the raven, the whippoorwill,
    the squirrel, the cat, the sparrow
shall teach you the ways of their defiance of season,
their hidden thrust for continuance.

Boisterous, active, strident as a new tree
    you shall take root again,
defying the shadow master of winter,
    the devil of frost,
refusing to yield one leaf to the ache-long nights.

And you rejoice in your numbered mortality,
in love, at risk of happiness for a single embrace,
at risk of loss and denial, too —
but knowing it and caring not.

A love, an eye, a heart, a hand,
a witness to ever advancing hope,
one to the power of infinity —
one plus a fraction, approaching,
but never reaching, duality.

4

Which shall it be? This orient autumn
or this renascent spring? This painless slide
into the lush oblivion of ash, or wing beat
in Daedalus flight to a promised star?

I only know that October is coming.
It will not be like any other October.

--September 1985, Providence, RI

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X V I I
THE STATE VERSUS AUTUMN

Resolved: For the sake of decency
and the order of the land,
the Congress hereby abolishes
the unwanted month of October...

No more Octobers ever?
Has the Society to Outlaw Gloom at last
succeeded in the Senate halls?
Has the Lobby Against Dead Leaves
banished arborial pollution?
Resolved: That the falling of leaves
disrupts the conduct of business,
distracts our children from their studies,
depresses the widowed and elderly...
We hereby outlaw deciduous trees.

How long, then, till the squad cars come
with their phalanx of armored cops,
handcuffing my corner sycamore,
chainsawing the neighbor's rowan tree,
tearing the vagrant maple from the street,
screaming with bullhorns for the ailanthus
to disperse from hillsides and parking lots,
interrogating runaway saplings all night,
wresting confessions from an effeminate birch?
The casualties will mount beyond reckoning,
the loss of leaves beyond count,
numbers too large for a superchip
or the chambered cranium of a C.P.A.
It's a conspiracy, of course:
the Moral Majority, the Vatican,
Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons,
an arm-in-arm league of Fundamentalists,
their hidden object a simple one:

Outlaw Halloween! They claim
the day is a Communist plot,
a pact of Satan and Hollywood,
Beelzebub and Publisher's Row.
A turning of innocent youth from God,
an anarchist's field day,
a sadist's orgy of pin-filled apples
and candies injected with LSD.
On Halloween, the faithful complain,
you cannot tell who the homosexuals are.
On Halloween, too much of the world
tilts to the literal Devil's side.

The bill has amendments, of course.
It will be a felony to serve up Poe
to those of tender and gullible age.
Horror books and movies? Goodness, no!
Bradbury's tales, and Brahms' autumnal tones,
LeFanu and Bierce, Blackwood and James,
Hawthorne and Derleth, Leiber and Bloch,
a whole amendment proscribing Stephen King,
real or pseudonymous, and prison for life
for reading Lovecraft and his protégés!

And so, a stitch in time is made.
September's harvest blinks
    to winter's barren hills.
A month of mail will never be delivered.
Today a marshal comes up to my desk,
tears page after page from my calendar.
Someone is blacking out words in the library books.
The date of my birth no longer exists.
These politicians mean business!

--September 1985/ October 1986, Providence RI

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X V I I I
SON OF DRACULA

I was the pale boy with spindly arms
    the undernourished bookworm
    dressed in baggy hand-me-downs
    (plaid shirts my father wouldn't wear,
    cut down and sewn by my mother),
old shoes in tatters, squinting all day
for need of glasses that no one would buy.

At twelve, at last, they told me
    I could cross the line
to the adult part of the library
those dusty classic shelves
which no one ever seemed to touch.
I raced down the aisles,
    to G for Goethe and Faust
         reached up for Frankenstein
  at Shelley, Mary
              (not pausing at Percy Bysshe!)
         then trembled at lower S
              to find my most desired,
              most dreamt-of —
    Bram Stoker's Dracula.

This was the door to years of dreams,
    and waking dreams of dreams.
I lay there nights,
the air from an open window chilling me,
waiting for the bat,
the creeping mist,
                the leaping wolf
the caped, lean stranger.

Lulled by the lap of curtains, the false
sharp scuttle of scraping leaves,
I knew the night as the dead must know it,
waiting in caskets, dressed
in clothes that no one living could afford to wear.

The river town of blackened steeples,
    vile taverns and shingled miseries
had no appeal to Dracula. Why would he come
when we could offer no castle,
no Carfax Abbey, no teeming streets
from which to pluck a victim?

My life - it seemed so unimportant then —
lay waiting for its sudden terminus,
its sleep and summoning to an Undead
sundown. How grand it would have been
to rise as the adopted son of Dracula!

I saw it all:
how no one would come to my grave
to see my casket covered with loam.
My mother and her loutish husband
would drink the day away at the Moose Club;
my brother would sell my books
   to buy new baseball cards;

my teachers' minds slate clean
   forgetting me as they forgot all
   who passed beneath and out their teaching.
No one would hear the summoning
    as my new father called me:
Nosferatu! Arise! Arise! Nosferatu!
And I would rise,
    slide out of soil
         like a snake from its hollow.
He would touch my torn throat.
The wound would vanish.
He would teach me the art of flight,
the rules of the hunt
    the secret of survival.

I would not linger
    in this town for long.
One friend, perhaps,
    I'd make into a pale companion,
another my slave, to serve my daytime needs
(guarding my coffin,
    disposing of blood-drained bodies) —

as for the rest
of this forsaken hive of humankind,
I wouldn't deign to drink its blood
    the dregs of Europe

We would move on
    to the cities.
The pale aristocrat and his thin son
  attending the Opera, the Symphony,
  mingling at Charity Balls,
Robin to his Batman,
    cape shadowing cape,
    fang for fang his equal soon
         at choosing whose life
              deserved abbreviation.
A fine house we'd have
    a private crypt below
         the best marbles
             the finest silk, mahogany, brass
             for the coffin fittings
Our Undead mansion above
    filled to the brim with books and music...

I waited, I waited —
   He never arrived.

That year I had a night-long nosebleed,
as though my Undead half had bitten me,
drinking from within. I woke in white
of hospital bed, my veins refreshed
with the hot blood of strangers.

Tombstones gleamed across the hill,
lit up all night in hellish red
from the never-sleeping iron furnaces.
Leaves danced before the wardroom windows,
blew out and up to a vampire moon.
I watched it turn from copper to crimson,
         its bloating fall to treeline,
         its deliberate feeding
     on corpuscles of oak and maple,
         one baleful eye unblinking.

A nurse brought in a tiny radio
One hour a night of symphony
was all the beauty this city could endure —
I held it close to my ear, heard Berlioz'
Fantastic Symphony: the gallows march,
the artist's Undead resurrection
amid the Witches' Sabbath —
my resurrection. I asked for paper.

The pen leaped forth and suddenly I knew
that I had been transformed.
I was a being of Night, I was Undead
since all around me were Unalive.
I saw what they could not see,
walked realms of night and solitude
where law and rule and custom crumbled.
I was a poet.
I would feed on Beauty for blood,
  I would make wings of words,
       I would shun the Cross of complacency.
A cape would trail behind me always.

---1986, Providence, RI; revised 1990; rewritten 1995

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X I X
NOT YEARS ENOUGH

 

How many autumns more? I cannot guess.
How slowly thirteen moons go rolling by,
how achingly the thirty dozen days
count off the torn inked sheets of calendar.
Life wrinkles silently, by phases imperceptible
the skull and bones show through the flesh.
More than the other signs of passing
the shelf of unread books accuses me —
not years enough to read them all!
And all those books unwritten, languages
to learn the lilt of, music to shape
beneath the independent fingers —
millions of words and thousands of melodies.
No matter what, the end must come
before the final page is writ, the coda sung.
Composers dreaded to start their Ninth
of symphonies, but trembled all the more
when the Ninth was done, behind them.
How many symphonies would they eke out
before the unrelenting knock of Fate?

If only Sleep, that dark-eyed panda,
were less the brazen thief — if only dreams
could quicken the long drear nights
with more than a passing vision.
I do not need to dream-quest Mt. Yaanek —
a quiet study would do, a reading lamp,
a chair and a sturdy book. My ka,
my lazy double, my astral body
can lounge on a hammock with a Dickens novel,
or browse through the night-locked Athenaeum.
Never too late to learn the names of trees,
of sleeping birds and withered flowers.
Or maybe I'd walk with book in hand
barefoot in graveyard, a midnight reader
of horror tales, epic reciter.

I'd make the dead listen to the Faerie Queene,
count on their fingers the knights and Moors
of the endless Orlando Furioso,
wear them out with the embracing lists,
the straw that stuffs the Song of Myself.
Maybe my eyes would retrace Shakespeare.

But this is Autumn: lamp-dousing time
for my waking self, long nights sliding
to the gravity of solstice, dead leaves
like pages escaping me unreadable.
Not years enough to read them all,
not years enough to count them!

--October 31, 1987, Providence-New York, revised 1990

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X
THE SAILOR AND THE OAK NYMPHS

Oak with its roots in core of iron,
lava-tipped fingers reaching to magma,
ancient beyond the reckoning of sun,
brown as the acorn egg that bore her,
branches tightened, taut as muscles
boles a gnarl of screaming faces
  echoes of strange births
  and even stranger lovers.

Her skin bears scars:
 the nettling name of some boy,
the pen-knifed initials of lovers
who long ago subsumed
    into the blur of humus,
the signature of a deeper attack,
knife-thrust of a drunken sailor
who slashed at her one moon-mad night,
breaking through bark to cambium.

She was a long time healing,
but years before the gashes stitched
to spiderlines

they found the man in a nearby wood
  anonymous cadaver
  throat slit by self
  or by an unknown hand.

Knowing this oak,
I know how he came to be there,
I need but taste the tannin
of my October cup, but close
my eyes to see the tale unravel:

First came the virgin girl,
the gentle Amaltheia,
the tender one who lured him
before the tavern door,
offered him kisses, promised
to walk with him
in slanted light of the forest.

He waited not far from the bleeding oak.
The fair one broke her promise.
He cursed her, wished for the warmth
   of the familiar dives,
   the hot wet swallow
   of burning whiskey.

And then a lusty nymph appeared,
red-lipped in leather,
a slut who said her name was Io.
Io was inexhaustible
fulfilling his every fantasy,
urging, then teasing,
then turning to mockery

of his all too human manhood.
Failing to please her,
he rolled away from her,
drifted into an angry stupor.

He lay half-dressed,
disheveled, undignified,
not hearing the flight of Io,
the leaf-crunch arrival
    of the barefoot hag,
the autumn crone, oak-born
Adrasteia, the unavoidable.

Before he could rise
from the cold-wet leaf bed,

she leaped on him,
    her bony knees on his shoulders
    breasts dry and pendant
         through tattered nightgown,
    nipples like withered twigs
    hair limp and gray
         and knotted with burrs,
her breath as she kissed him
the scent of apple rot,
the hint of something dead
turned up beneath wet leaves.

Her cracked voice whispered
the song the oak tree taught her:
of the hundred-handed slayers
  who sharpened knives in caves,
of the red-fanged worms
  burrowing up to find him,
of the arctic wind unleashed
  to follow him everywhere
  like a personal iceberg.
Then she was gone. He lay
beneath a tilted moon,
  a mocking Venus,
dry-mouthed and aching
with the bite of frost.
He found his pockets emptied,
wallet and coins,
greenbacks among the soggy leaves

his pocket knife,
his comb,
his fine-honed shaving razor
  already open
blade gleaming on a blood red banner,
the singing leaf of the oak tree.

--October 31, 1987, Providence-New York, revised 1990

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X I
END OF THE WORLD

Not with a trumpet
  but a whisper.  No angels
proclaimed the end. Prophets
with sandwich signs
 did not predict it.
No tea-leaf ladies
  or noted astrologers
knew that the end would come
at half-past eight
  in the morning.

It was a Monday,
  (of all days!)
catching them dressed
for their funerals.

Who would have guessed
that this October,
instead of leaves
the people turned
and blew away,
that gravity,
the faithful plodder,
would take a holiday?

First some commuters
on a platform in Connecticut
fell straight into a cloudless sky
trying to hook
  to lampposts and poles
with flailing arms.

Even the oversize stationmaster
was not immune,
hung by his fingertips
to shingled roof,
an upside-down balloon.

His wig fell down,
the rest of him
shot shrieking upwards.

Slumlords in Brooklyn
dropped rent receipts,
clutched hearts and wallets
as they exfoliated,
burst into red and umber explosions
and flapped away.

A Senator stepped down
from his bulletproof limo,
waved to the waiting lobbyist,
  (sweaty with suitcase
   full of hundreds)
only to wither to leaf-brown dust,
crumbling within his overcoat.

Stockbrokers adjusted their power ties,
buttoned their monogrammed blazers,
pushed one another from narrow ledge
falling from Wall Street precipice
into the waiting sky,
printouts and ticker tapes,
class rings and credit cards
feathering back down.

Bankers turned yellow,
wisped out like willow leaf
from crumpled pin-stripe,
filling the air
with streamers of vomit
as they passed the roof
of the World Trade Center.

The colors were amazing:
black women turned ivory,
white men turned brown and sere,
athletes swelled up
  to fuchsia puffballs,
Chinese unfurled
  to weightless jade umbrellas.

Winds plucked the babies from carriages,
oozed them out of nurseries,
pulled them from delivery rooms,
from the very womb —
gone on the first wind out and upwards.

They filled the stratosphere
darkened the jet stream,
too frail to settle in orbit,
drifting to airless space.

They fell at last into the maw
of the black hole Harvester,
a gibbering god
  who made a bonfire
  of the human host
the whirling spiral of skeletons
a rainbow of dead colors
red and yellow and black and brown
  albino and ivory
parched-leaf skins a naked tumble.

The bare earth sighed.
Pigeons took roost in palaces.
Tree roots began
the penetration of concrete.
Rats walked the noonday market.

Wild dogs patrolled
  the shopping malls.
Wind licked at broken panes.
A corporate logo toppled
  from its ziggurat.
Lightning jabbed down
  at the arrogant churches
  abandoned schools
  mansions unoccupied

started a firestorm
a casual fire
as unconcerned
as that unfriendly shrug
that cleaned the planet.

--October 31, 1987, Providence-New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S  -  X X I I
THE OUTSIDER

Some say that spring
is made for lovers,
summer for marrying.
I do not know
those seasons:
I hastened on
when others mingled,
passed by alone
amid begetting.
I walked the city
for years not touching,
untouched and unafraid.

I am October.
I am conjured
of its red and yellow fever.
I am outlaw to life,
a thief of eyeballs,
citizen of a larger anarchy,
singer of dangerous
truths, peril to normalcy.

Little the world
loves pleases me.
Autumn-mad trees
mean more than palaces,
an austere tomb
more true than a cottage.

I love the earth —
love more
that vast black space
in which it rolls,
a lost marble.

I am the leaf that burns,
the candle that lights
  its own extinction,
sunset regarding itself,
sunlight spun round
the arc of infinity
until its end
sees its beginning.

I come out of the sea,
  walk sideways,
  write words
between the tide and shore.
I am the shape
  behind the randomness
  of stars,
the dream that fills
  the inkpot of Autumn,
the hooded Outsider
  who frightens you
  and laughs
then makes you laugh
at the absurdity of fear.

Will you stay indoors,
hoarding the apple harvest,
warming yourself
by a dead-tree fire?

Or will you join me,
fellow conspirator,
dance me between
the staves of symphonies,
roll in this new moon
blanket with me,
leaf-haired and cold
and laughing

giving up everything
to inherit all?

I am October.
  I wait at cusp,
  at equinox,
  at crossroads,


the far-off chant
unfettered wind
nowhere contained
    by walls,

the fire-fletched arrows
of burning Orionids,

the shape upon
  the leaf-strewn hill
that calls you
  and extends its hand,
the eyes in shadow
that will not let you sleep.

--October 31, 1987, Providence-New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X I I I
FRAGMENTS OF A HYMN TO RHEA,
THE OAK TREE GODDESS

Earth-born Rhea     Queen of Oaks
Dryads' mistress and guardian
shelter and shade for the maidens three
who nursed the infancy of Zeus:

tender and virginal     dear Amaltheia
nubile and frantic     the dancing Io
withered and wild      dread Adrasteia

Oak in all your aspects   green-fired
in burst of spring     full-fruited
with pendant acorns     brown-limbed
and mourning on a hecatomb of leaves

A giant goddess     titanic oak
a sigil of your Titan origins

Still you echo     the thunder of shields
drumbeating spears     bare-shouldered Curetes
oak sons who guarded the infant god
baby in bird nest camouflage
stunned to silence by the tumult below

Your roots still plummet     to metals five
to mines of tin and lead and copper
veins of silver and fire-flaked gold

Mother of Gods and Sister of Titans
you it was who gave the stone to Cronus,
deceiving your cannibal husband
with granite wrapped in swaddling,
pretending to honor the infantophage,
blasphemer of the law of life.

It was you who raised the child in secret,
presented him as bastard cousin,
spawn of the lesser dwellers of ocean,
hostage cupbearer from trembling seas-
you who mixed the salt and mustard
into the nectar and watered wine,
you who stood by Zeus and whispered
words of courage and pride and waiting,
until the stupored Titan vomited,
disgorging the slimed Olympians
into the dark and cleansing river.

You were the lever that toppled your kind,
used wifely and cunning deceitfulness
to give the earth to the youngster gods.
And so you claimed a place in forest
took root and rest   welcomed the bird
the garland of clinging grapevine
zephyrs and rain    enduring the frost

sank roots when the moon was a baby,
saw it torn from the belly of ocean.
Then came the slant-browed hominids,
brutish but neither animals nor gods,
their first house built
in a lightning-scarred trunk,
first meal a windfall
of sweet brown acorns
nut-milk of your abundance.

Rhea, Rhea, Rhea! Rhea, Rhea!     
Hear the downward drumbeat
Rhea, Rhea    Pan cry
and lion roar     trilled chant
of your assembled priestesses.
Unveil us your mysteries
O red-haired Titaness,
acorn-jeweled Goddess!

Five-fingered leaves —
what are you saying?
Is this mad chattering     
for mere birds only —
this frantic signaling
sign language of the Dactyls —
the virile thumb
the pointing index
the impudent finger
oracular, the tiny one —
Are you repeating the wind
or inventing it?
Are you teasing us up from apehood
with signs and mysteries?

You are silent as Saturn
with its leaf-dust rings.
Your scrolls fall everywhere,
a diaspora of scriptures.

I come to you alone     at midnight
I offer you    a Druid handshake
a subtle drumbeat     a melody.
Your great eyes open in rippled bark.
You do not speak.  You seem to sense
how men have toppled your ancient temples,
how forests are torn   birds dispossessed

You sleep again     but where your eyes
had studied me     the amber tears collect
the amber tears of Rhea

--November 3, 1987, Providence, RI

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X I V
RUNAWAYS

I want to report a disappearance.
No, not exactly, not a person.
No, not a pet. Lost property?
What's missing isn't mine to lose,
but it has certainly vanished.
The tree-the tree in front of my house
is just plain gone.
Just yesterday I raked the leaves,
the first red flags of autumn.
The maple was there. I touched it,
traced with my hand its withered bark.
Today it's gone, root, branch and leaf.
Just a hole in the pavement,
a heap of gravel, a trail of clotted soil
down and around the corner.

Nothing disturbed my sleep.
No chain saw, crane or dynamite
chewed, toppled or fragmented
my splendid shade tree.
I have no witnesses
except the baffled squirrels,
the homeless begging sparrows.
My neighbors seem not to notice —
they're Mediterranean,
prefer the sun and open space
to my shady Druid grove.
I'll plant another tree, I guess,
though I'll be old before
its boughs can shelter me.

I wouldn't have come —
I would have borne the mystery alone —
except that — how do I say it? —
I think it's happening all over.
I notice trees. I walk the park,
maintain a nodding acquaintance with birds,
keep time by the blossoms,
the fruit, the rainbow of flame
when October exfoliates.
This morning the park
is missing three maples, two sycamores,
one each of elm and beech,
crab apple, peach and sassafras.
There's not a sign of violence:
no broken trunks, no sawed-off limbs,
no scorch of lightning.
Just holes in the ground,
deep channels where roots withdrew,
and where each tree had been,
a trail of gravel, worms and soil.

Who's taking them, you ask?
You're the policeman,
   the missing persons authority.
I don't think anyone's taking them.
I think they're leaving us.
Maybe they're going north to Canada.
Maybe they've had enough
of crime and dirt and corruption.
Maybe they'd like a little freedom,
a little peace and quiet.
Maybe they've joined
the runaways, the vanished,
shading the brows of suicides.

You'd better investigate.
Imagine our city if this goes on:
Central Park a treeless dog run;
Park Avenue and Fifth two blazing corridors
of steam and sweat and screaming cabbies.
What would we be without our trees?
We brought them with us from Europe,
our Johnny Appleseed inheritance.

For every wilderness we leveled
we came back planting, pruning,
framing our starry vision
with tamer treelines.
They civilize us, connect us
to the earth and the seasons.
Without them we are savages,
wolf eating wolf on the pavement,
buying and selling
with the handshake of scorpions.

Find them! Beg them to come back!
Ask them their terms!
Get the mayor to negotiate!
Promise them we'll do better.
We'll clean the streets again,
restore the parks and riverways.
We'll serenade the trees with Mozart,
outlaw rap and raucous riveting.
We'll do whatever it takes!
How could we go on without them,
Leafless, treeless, barren and dead?

---September 14, 1993, Boston to New York

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X V
IN CHILL NOVEMBER

The leaves be red,
The nuts be brown,
They hang so high
They will not fall down.
--Elizabethan Round, Anon
.

The snow has come.
The leaves have fallen.
Long nights commit the chill
low sun and flannel clouds cannot disperse.
We walk the park, stripped now
to mere schematics,
vision drawn out to farther hills
now that the forest is blanked
like flesh turned glass on X-ray negative.
These woods are sham so near the solstice,
play out a murder mystery of birch and maple.
The riddle is who's dead and who's pretending?
That witches' elm with clinging broomsticks—
is it deceased or somnolent?
Which of these trees will never bloom again:
    A Lombardy poplar stripped by blight —
    A maple picked clean by gypsy moths —
    A thunder blasted pedestal of ash —
    A moribund sycamore whose only life
         came in a few vain buds
         (growing like dead men's hair and nails,
         slow to acknowledge the rot below) —
The ground's a color cacophony,
    alive, alive!
the treeline a study in gray and brown.
Now who can tell
    the bare tree from the dead,
    the thin man from the skeleton?
Which denizens of wood lot shed these leaves?
Which is a corpse? a zombie?
Which one is but a vermin shell?

Which treads the night on portable roots,
    festooned with bats,
    sinking its web of trailing vines
    into the veins of saplings?
Which stalwart oaks will topple,
which trunks cave in to termite nests?
How can we tell the living from the dead?

It's just the month: November lies.
    October always tells the truth.
You could no more fake
    the shedding of leaves
than simulate a pulse in stone.

Only the living fall in love,
only the living cry for joy,
only the living relinquish that month
in red and yellow shuddering!

The pines,
    those steeple-capped Puritans,
what price their ever-green?
Scrooge trees, they hoard their summers,
withhold their foliage,
refuse to give the frost his due.
Ah, they are prudent,
    Scotch pine and wily cedar,
    touch-me-not fir and hemlock.
They will live to a ripe old age
(if you can call that living).

Love! Burn! Sing! Crumble!
Dance! Wind! Fall! Tumble!
Into the wind-blown pyramid of leaves!
Spin in a whirling dust devil waltz!
Leaf-pile! Treetops! Tramping on clouds!
Weightless, flying, red-caped October!

--October 25, 1989, New York to Edinboro, Pennsylvania

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X V I
THE FENCE

Town fathers, what have you done?
Last night I returned
(I vowed — I made the lake a promise)
intending to tramp the lane of maples,
read with my palms the weary tombstones,
feast with my eyes the clouded lake,
lean with a sigh on founder's headstone,
chatter my verses to turtles and fish,
trace with my pen the day lily runes,
    the wild grape alphabet,
the anagram of fallen branches,
all in a carpet of mottled leaves.
The mute trees were all assembled.
The stones — a little more helter-
    skelter than before,
but more or less intact — still greeted me
as ever with their Braille assertions.
The lake, unbleached solemnity
    of gray, tipped up
and out against its banks to meet me.
All should have been as I left it.

Heart sinks. The eye recoils.
    My joy becomes an orphanage
    at what I see:
from gate to bank to bend
    of old peninsula,
    across the lot
    and back again,
sunk into earth
    and seven feet high
A CHAIN LINK FENCE!

Town fathers, what have you done?
Surely the dead do not require protection?

Trees do not walk.
    The birds are not endangered.
How have your grandsires sinned
    to be enclosed in a prison yard?
As I walk in I shudder.
    It is a trap now.
    A cul-de-sac.
I think of concentration camps.

For years, art students painted here—
    I hear the click of camera shutters,
    the scratch of pens,
    the smooth pastel caress,
    taste the tongue lick of water color,
    inhale the night musk of oil paints.
Poets and writers too,
    leaning on death stones,
    took ease and inspiration here,
    minds soaring to lake and sky.
At dawn, a solitary fisherman
    could cast his line here.

Some nights the ground would undulate
    with lovers
(what harm? who now would take
    their joy between two fences?)

The fence is everywhere! No angled view
can exclude it. It checkerboards
the lake, the sky, the treeline.

They tell me that vandals rampaged here,
    knocked over stones,
    tossed markers
         into the outraged waves.

Whose adolescents did this,
    town fathers?
                   Yours.
Stunted by rock and stunned by drugs,
they came to topple a few old slabs,
struck them because they could not
         strike you.

Let them summon their dusky Devil,
rock lyric and comic and paperback,
blue collar magic, dime store demons —
                    they wait and wait,
blood dripping from dead bird sacrifice
until the heavy truth engages them:

The dead are dead,
    magic is empty ritual,
         and stubborn Satan declines
to answer a teen age telegram.

Fence in your children, not our stones!

---October 25, 1989, Edinboro, Pennsylvania

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S  - X X V I I
TO THE ARC OF THE SUBLIME

In nights beneath the stars,
    sometimes alone — sometimes
    with one I loved
         (in futile or secret urgency) —
I have outwaited
    the rise and fall of Scorpio,
         arc of its tail
              stinging the treetops.
I have traced the inconstant moon,
    the indecisive Venus;
    feel more assured
by the long, slow haul of Jupiter,
the patient tread of Pluto
    (whom they pursue
         in their frigid outer orbits
I cannot guess)

Such solitude,
    millennia between
         the fly-bys of comets,
perhaps is why
    they need so many moons,
why rings of ice
    encircle them like loyal cats.
It is lonely in space,
    far out
where the sun is merely
    a star among stars.

It is lonely in autumn.
    I sit in midnight woods.
A trio of raccoons, foraging,
    come up to me,
black mask eyes of the young ones
interrogating the first cold night,

    the unaccustomed noisiness
         of bone rattle maple leaf
              beneath their paws.
How can I tell them
    these trees will soon be skeletons,
    the pond as hard as glass,
    the nut and berry harvest over?
These two are young —
    they would not believe me.
Their mother rears up protectively,
    smells me,    scents out
    the panic among the saplings,
    the smell of rust and tannin.

We share a long stillness,
    a moment when consciousness
    is not a passive agency.
Our sight invades the countryside,
    embracing everything —
    sleepers in beds in a concrete tower-
    earthworms entwining in humus rot —
goes up and out through the limpid sky,
    streaming past moon —
         — moon's lava'd seas —
out, out, to the arc of the sublime,
    tracing the edge of great Antares,
leaping to other galaxies unafraid.

(Let space expand as though the worlds
    still feared their neighbors!
Let miser stars implode,
    their dwarf hearts shriveling
         to cores of iron!)

We are the scourge of entropy.
    We sing the one great note
         through which new being
              comes out of nothingness.

Does it have meaning,
    this seed-shagged planet
        alive with eyes?
Is earth the crucible,
    sandbox of angry gods,
or is it the eye of all eyes,
    ear of all ears,
the nerve through which the universe
    acquires self-knowledge?

But these are weighty thoughts
    for man and mammal!
We are but blood and minerals,
    upright for an instant,
    conscious for but a moment,
    a grainfall of cosmic hourglass.
Yet I am not ephemeral:
    I freeze time,
         relive moments
              chronicle the centuries
    respeak Shakespeare,
         beat out the staves of Mozart,
              read the same books
              my forebears knew
         make of old words
              my wordy pyramid.
I am the one
    snapping the pictures of solar systems,
    sending myself
         an outside-in self-portrait.
I send my name and signature
    on bottles spinning past Uranus.
I am the one who asks, Is it worth it?
I who hear the X-ray wind reply, It is!
I am the one who would not stay in caves,
    I was discontent in the treetops.
I wanted to be bird and whale and rocket.

Ever, o ever more mortal now —
     — friends falling away like withered leaves —
still I find joy in this subliminal shrine of autumn.
My hand is full of fossil shells
    picked up from the lake shore rubble,
scallops enduring with the same rock faith
    (implicit minimum vocabulary):
I live, and the increase of my consciousness
    is the span of my life.

---February 19, 1991, Providence, RI

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RING 2

A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X V I I I
THE CREEPERS

For Shirley Powell

Halloween:
this is a night for paranoids,
the eve the living and dead
switch places, bonfires of souls
on top of every hilltop,
the night when life
walks tightropes over emptiness,
when autumn finally shrugs
its sorry burden of summer.

This night I am not flesh —
I am a web of ganglia,
a sensitive antenna
to every flow of energy.
I hear the droning wind,
hard-edged as needles,
wearing down stone
a micron at a serving.
I hear clouds scream
as they graze the metal edge
of shining office towers.

On the long cab ride homeward,
above the hiss of tires,
Tenth Avenue lampposts
utter a shrill soprano
of throbbing fluorescence.
Faceless figures shuffle by.
Tenements blur
to corrugated slabs
of half-seen brick,
yet I hear the whirring compressors
of a thousand air conditioners.
Latin songs bounce
off unlit pavement,
amorphous drumming
fills an empty warehouse.

Stop light: a clutch
of desperate hands
thrusts from a heap of coats
too old and shapeless
to issue more
than an extended palm

Ticked off in taxi meter dimes,
the pumpkin stroke arrives.
Midnight finds me
on Ninety-Fifth Street, my block
a corridor of feral eyes
gleaming in cellarways
(of all in this raucous city
only the cats know how to be silent!)

The trash can at the curb is rattling,
yard leavings jumbled with broken glass —
hagwig of brittle branch chattering,
a spear of broken mirror
peeling its silver backing
like a witch's unwanted reflection.
Sharp shards like frozen thunderbolts
make desolate wind chime clashes.
I dare not touch them —
they look hungry for a vein to slash!

Over my gloomy lintel
ivy sucks stone and air,
wrinkles with autumn wisdom,
spitting discarded leaves
as I pass in and under.

Ivy clings, too,
behind my bedroom.
Now, with my hyper ears,
I hear them rustling,
even, at times,
when there is no breeze.
The vine is an onramp for spiders,
a ladder for spotted snakes.

And now, as sure
as I hear it,
I know the ivy is listening.
It knows the keystrokes
of my typewriter
and can read each letter
by its distinctive click.
It even knows the scratch
of my pen, can mouth
my words as fast as I write them.
Hedera helix, I write —
the tiny voice titters back
"English Ivy! Our proper name!"

The egg of All Saints
cracks into dawn.
Vine laps the sunyolks,
tendrils exploring
new gaps in the masonry,
tilting vampire umbrellas
to the unsuspecting sun.

Smothering church and rectory,
carpeting the walls of the library,
cozying up the university halls,
the ivy horde is studying us
close up, from ape to rocket,
always averting those
underleaf eyes, those
sharp little teeth.

They mean to kill us slowly,
urban piranha reducing
brownstones to dust,
churches to rubble,
pigeons to skeletons —
insidious vines,
lethal creepers!

--New York City 1974, rev. Weehawken 1996

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X I X
LOVED ONES

Loved ones, the early dawn's
illusion-loves
seem still the finest
though rippled dead
in the sea of years

Loved ones
for whom mere sight
was swooning,
words full
of double, triple meaning,
eternal prospects,
each falling into
and out of
as certain and final
as the death of dinosaurs.

Loved ones
afloat a haunted lake--
desperate trees,
bone-dry bird nests
a brambled heart
wintering on promises,
utopias delayed
in permafrost,
star-speckled night
nerved with nebulas.
Yearning was more
than having,
as every elm tree
leaned with me
toward the absent beloved.

Loved ones
outgrew those student days,
subsumed to normalcy,
sank like a stone to suicide,
took up the faith.
The stars I named for my beloved
shrug off their brightness, shamed
at their worldly outcome.

Pursue the Beloved,
a Sufi advises me.
It seems I hurled them skyward —
Andromeda and Venus,
Mars and Ganymede--
I am too fixed a star,
my orbit limited
(evading black holes
of death & depression,
wobbling a little
when some new planet approaches)

Loved ones
escaped me:
the more they changed
the more immutable
the past became,
as what they were
and what I am
danced endlessly
in Autumn air.

--New York City 1982, rev Weehawken 1996

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X X
AUTUMN ON MARS

for Ray Bradbury

On Mars the black-trunked trees are dense
with summer's crimson foliage.
When dry-ice autumn comes,
the oaks singe sickly green.
The land is a riot of airborne olive,
chartreuse and verdigris,
green fire against a pink and cloudless sky.
The sour red apples go yellow sweet;
the wind-blanched wheat
forsakes its purple plumage;
cornstalks are tied in indigo bundles;
eyes flicker ghoulishly
as candles are set
in carved-out green gourds.

Grandfathers warn their terrified children
of the looming, ominous blue planet,
roiled with thunderclouds and nuclear flashes,
that warlike, funeral-colored Earth
from which invaders would one day come,
decked in the somber hues of death,
withered and green like dead-pile leaves,
armed to the hilt with terrible weapons.

"I've seen them!" an elder asserts.
"They have two eyes, flat on their heads!"
Eye stalks wiggle in disbelief.
"They walk on two legs, like broken sticks!"
Multijointed leglets thump in derision.
"They speak in the animal octave,
and they bark like krill-dogs."
The children shriek in red and purple.
"No way, Old One! Don't make us think it!
How can they talk without twinkling?"

"Their rockets go higher with every turn
of our world around the life-star.
Earthers will come, thick on the ground
like our thousand-year mugworms.
They will kill us, take our females captive,
burn our egg domes, eat our aphidaries!"
A fireball slashes the pink horizon.
Two hundred eye-stalks follow the arc.
"That might be one of their robots now!
Their probes are watching everywhere!"
Now fifty Martian youngster scream,
shrieking in ultraviolet tones,
crab legs scattering in every direction.

The Old Ones smile in five dimensions,
sit down for a cup of hot grumulade
and some well-earned peace and quiet.
"It's not nice to frighten the young ones,"
the eldest muses, "but it wouldn't be autumn
without a little Halloween."

-- Halloween 1997, Providence, rev. 2002 Providence

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X X I
OCTOBER STORM

First night of the tenth month
a roaring storm hits town:
thunder from every side,
flash after cataclysmic flash
of blue-white lightning.
Transformers hum
and tempt the storm-stab,
birds hunch in branches,
cats dash
from on dry porch to another.
A set of solitary car lights passes,
distorted in sheets of rain,
taillights at the corner
like the haunted eyes
of a carnivore
who has just learned
he is the last of his kind.
A siren signals a distant fire.

Lightning comes closer,
closest I have known in years.
I open the window,
smell of ozone,
watch as a nearby tree goes down,
raked by the fingernails
of a coal-black thunderhead.

I hold the new jade stone
on which a Chinese artisan
has carved my nascent Mandarin name:

Meng for the dream, the world in which all poets dwell —
Ch'iu for the autumn, my chosen province and capital —
Lei for the thunder of the mountain-striding storm.

I am the Dream of Autumn Thunder,
and this storm has called my name,
marked the day of my arrival
in the mysterious Middle Kingdom.

-- October 1998, Weehawken

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X X I I
ON RECEIVING A GIFT OF BOOKS
IN EARLY OCTOBER

for Barbara Girard

 

The books are falling from the trees:

The Birds of Swan Point Cemetery
still forest green
with wide-eyed saw-whet owl
pleading for continued foliage,
months more of fat brown mice
before the meager winter comes

Here's Fraser's angry Wood King
guarding his oak, his paranoia
old as The Golden Bough,
his staff and sword crossed,
feet firm in the circle
of abundant acorns
not even the squirrels touch,
fearing his wild words

Not well concealed,
that oily Aegisthus
woos married Clytemnestra
amid the thinning sycamores.
Troy is far off, the war is long.
He'll never come home, that
ungrateful king, Agamemnon

Now here's a well-used leaf,
pock-holed already with frostbite,
red with laughter on top,
brown with wisdom beneath,
I read at random:
"War is so savage a thing
that it rather befits beasts
than men --"
old friend Erasmus, your Praise of Folly

Here by the stately laurel
falls a wreath, twined round
with bands of gold, not far
from the supple columns
of the Athenaeum,
and the voice I first heard
in timeless tales of gods and heroes
spins out Mythology as truth
from the pen of Edith Hamilton —
o welcome leaves
from when the world was young

Pruned branches piled for an auto-da-fé
sing and crackle: Here burns Voltaire,
Candide and his beloved Cunegonde.
Pangloss intones as flames roar up,
of the best of all possible worlds.

The Grand Inquisitor warms his hands,
is not amused as pine cones volley down,
needles of truth in evergreen pursuit,
crows mocking
as Trevor-Roper tells all
in The European Witch-Craze.
The Dominicans are not amused.

Some of this autumn fall is dangerous:
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
a perennial leaf that will not wither,
brave Mary Wollstonecraft's
appeal to higher reason,
awaits its vindication still.
And here's A History of the Primates.
Are men descended from hairy apes?
Just ask a woman.

Here's Forster's Maurice,
a novel its author dared not publish,
a brave, tormented book
about a man who dared
to be happy
in his love for another man:
I hold you, reticent English leaf,
press you into my own heart's book
and will not let the earth consume you.

And now the wind gusts out and upward,
ah, too many leaves to count now:
Jung and Proust
Lawrence and Leopardi
so many books unread
so many leaves one upon another,
mountains of you like toppled libraries
pyramids of poems to kick through
and millions more still waiting to fall!

--October 1998, Weehawken. A poem written extemporaneously, without plan, while examining, at random, a pile of books from a gift carton. The "random" effect was enhanced further by opening some of the books to random pages.

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X X I I I
AUTUMN SUNDAYS IN
MADISON SQUARE PARK

Stately old sycamores, sentinel oaks,
fan-leafed gingko and noble elm,
year by year your patient quest for the sun
has sheltered such madmen, squirrels,
birds, bankers, derelicts and poets
as needed a plot of peaceful
respite from the making and sale of things.

Poe lingered here in his penniless woe.
Melville looked up at a whale cloud.
Walt Whitman idled on the open lawn.
(Sad now, the ground scratched nearly bare,
Fenced off against the depredating dogs;
the fountains dry, while standing pools
leach up from old, sclerotic water mains.)

Four chimes ring for unattended vespers,
no one minding the arcane call,
not the bronze orators exhorting us,
not the rollicking hounds unleashed
in the flea-infested gravel dog-run,
not the grizzled men in boxes,
so worn from the work of all-day begging

they're ready to sleep before the sun sets.
A thousand pigeons clot the trees.
The northwest park is spattered with guano,
benches unusable, a birds'
Calcutta, a ghetto a bloated squabs
feasting on mounds of scattered crumbs,
bird-drop stalagmites on every surface!

Daily she comes here, the pigeon-lady,
drab in her cloth coat and sneakers,
sack full of bread crusts, and millet and rice,
peanuts and seeds from who-know-where.
Still she stands, in the midst of offerings,
until they light upon her shoulder,
touching her fingertips, brushing her cheeks

with their dusty, speckled wings, naming her
name in their mating call cooing,
luring her up to lofty parapets,
rooftop and ledge, nest precipice
where, if she could fly, she would feed their young,
guard their dove-bright sky dominion
from hawks, the heedless crowds, the wrecking cranes.

Across one fenced-in lawn the sparrows soar
in V-formation back and forth,
as though they meant in menacing vectors
to enforce the no-dog zoning.
Amid the uncut grass the squirrels' heads
bob up, vanish, then reappear
as the endless search for nuts and lovers

ascends its autumn apogee. But here
the squirrels are thin and ragged,
road-kill reanimated harvesters,
tails curled like flattened question marks
as every other morsel offered them
is snatched by a beak or talon.
Descending birds make calligraphic curves

as branches twine in spiral chase of sun.
Nothing is safe from scavenging --
trash barrels tipped for aluminum cans,
the ground beneath the benches combed
for roach-ends the dealers crush and re-sell
to law clerks and secretaries.
Even the cast-off cigarettes are taken

by derelicts and nicotinic birds.
Certain my notes are tracking him,
a storm-tossed schizophrenic darts away.
Beside the World War's monument
(ah, naïve time, to conceive no second!)
an Asian woman gardening
adds green and blossom to the shady ground

amid the place-names of trampled Belgium,
forest and trench of invaded France.
(Not her war, certainly, not her heroes,
yet her soft blooms, as from a grave
whisper the names of the now-dead warriors
and sons who never come to read
of Ypres, Argonne and the barbed-wire lines.)

A welcome bookstall has opened its doors,
as if to lure the passers-by
to read, to dream, beneath the timeless elms —
but who can sit, immersed in book,
as suicidal leaves cascade, as hands
shaking and thin, trade crumpled bills
for bags of bliss in crystal, crack or powder?

Is this the potter's field of shattered dreams?
The copper arm of Liberty
once stood at the northern end of the square.
The trees once soared. Now roots eat salt,
brush against steam pipes and rusted cable,
cowed by courthouse, statues frowning,
Gothic and Renaissance insurance spires.

Only the branches, forgiving, forgetting,
redeem this purgatory place.
A Druid stillness draws here at dusktime,
squirrel and bird and runaway
equally blessed as the hot-ash sunset
gives way to the neon-lit night,
city unsleeping beneath the unseen stars.

--New York City/ Weehawken/ Providence 1996/1998/2001

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A N N I V E R S A R I U S - X X X I V
SEPTEMBER IN GOTHAM

This is New York, and fall
has caught us unawares.
From Palisade bus I view
the gap-toothed skyline,
a forest whose tallest trees
are suddenly missing.

In Gotham, they say,
strange breezes from the south
make certain elders remember
downwind from the death camps.
There is talk of stolen watches
from shops beneath the rubble,
the discovery daily
of severed limbs.

Month's end, I walk all day
in midtown,
with shoppers determined
to do something normal,
eat Szechuan lunch, browse
books, consider new software.
Like many others around me,
I pick things up from the counter,
then put them back —
everyday urges seem so trivial.

There is not one note of music.
People keep stopping
to stare nervously
at the Empire State,
like frightened squirrels
in the shadow
of a threatened sequoia.

The sycamores in Bryant Park
beam back the sun,
an interrupted medley
of overhanging clouds
that pause, then part,
then scud away.
Seedpods of honey locust fall,
curl brown like overdone toast
on the pavement,
but the delicate leaves remain above,
still adamant green.

It is not till night,
till I turn the corner on Lexington
and spy the dark hunched shell
of the Gramercy Park Armory,
that I see the leaves of this autumn,
its feuilles morts,
taped to treetrunks, walls and windows,
tied to a chain link fence,
row on row to the end of seeing,
flapping in rainstorm, tattered, tearing,
soon to be ankle deep in the gutter —

these albumblatts of anguish
burst forth with human colors —
faces brown and pink and salmon,
oak and ash and ebony,
the rainbow of human flesh,
of eyeflash —

visages still in their conquering twenties,
snapshot in happy moments,
embracing their brides,
babies on knees,
license, yearbook, graduation photos,
smiling at beach or barbecue,
ink fading or bleeding now
in the sky's abundant tearfall.

In the language we use
for the recovery of wayward pets,
these posters beg the impossible:

IF ANYONE HAS SEEN HER —
MISSING — MISSING
LEFT SHOULDER SCAR —
A DOLPHIN TATTOO —
MISSING — MISSING
HAVE YOU SEEN ME? —
MISSING — MISSING
PLEASE FIND ME
MISSING — MISSING

--September 30, 2001, New York City


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A N N I V E R S A R I U S -   X X X V

AUTUMN

A Fragment by Alexander Pushkin, 1833

“To the drowsy intellect, all things are possible…— Derzhavin

I
October! It comes at last. The grove shakes
from naked boughs the last reluctant leaves.
The road is iced with autumn’s chilling breath –
I hear the brook behind the turning mill,
but the pond is still; a neighbor with dogs
tramps to the distant fields – his hounds disturb
the peace of forest, his horse’s hoof-falls
knock down and trample the winter wheat.

II
My season now! Spring is a bore to me.
The dull thaw: mud everywhere thick and vile—
Spring dizzies me, as my mind obsesses
daydreaming, my blood in giddy ferment.
Winter’s austerity is what I need,
white snows beneath a whiter moon – what joy
to glide airily in a speeding sleigh
with one whose clasping fingers burn like fire!

III
The fun of it, skating steel-shod on ice,
tracing a pattern on the river’s face!
The air aglow with winter’s festivals!
But even Winter palls – no one can love
six months of snowfall – even the cave bear
in his drowsy den would say “Enough, now!”
Sleigh-rides with jolly youths grow tedious,
and we grow quarrelsome cooped in all day.

IV
You, peach-fuzz Summer – you I could cherish,
except for heat and dust, and biting flies.
These bring dullness. The sated heart wears down.
Our inspiration is a dried-up creek.
Iced tea is not enough; we turn to drink,
we rue the Winter hag, whose funeral
served up wine and blini. What little chill
we get comes from the freezer, sweet and cold.
We spoon out ices, and we think of snow.


V
No, the end of Autumn is not admired:
But I, reader, will hear no ill of her;
She is the unnoticed child, the wistful
one, way down the line of gaudy sisters.
Her quiet beauty is the one for me.
Her bare-tree starkness, I frankly say
makes Winter’s edge the finest time of all.
I love her humbly and so silently
that I alone, in leaf-fall, deserve her.

VI
How can I make you see, Spring-clad lovers?
It is like loving a sickly maiden,
doomed to a consumptive death, pale-skinned
with that ivory pallor and passive gaze,
too weak to hurl a reproach at this life.
Even as her soul expires, her young lips
curl up in a ghost of a febrile smile.
She does not hear her grave being readied.
Today she lives – she is gone tomorrow.

VII
Season of mournful pomp, you live for me!
Your valedictory beauty, mine!
(Or am I yours – tranced and captivated?)
I love to watch as Nature’s dyes dim out,
the forest full court in gold and purple,
turned to paler shades in hoarfrost reaping.
The noisy wind tells me its secrets, pale skies
concealed by the billows of darkling clouds,
holding the sun back, frostbite hovering,
whispered threats of grizzled Winter – I hear you!

VIII
I bloom afresh each time the Autumn comes.
The Russian cold is good for me, I think!
The days’ routines regain their old relish.
I sleep and eat in proper proportion.
Desire awakes – and I am young again!
My heart beats fast with rejuvenated
blood – I’m full of  life like a newly-fed
Dracula – a lightning-jolted Franken—
well, anyway, you get my meaning, friend!

 

IX
Bring me my horse! The steppes are calling me!
On his back, glad rider, I’ll thump and thud,
fill the dale with my echoing thunder.
His shining hooves strike sparks, his streaming mane
repeats the wind like a Cossack’s banner.
The bright ice creaks when we cross the river.
But the days are so short! Already dark!
I read my book in guttering hearth-light,
nourishing immortal longings again.

X
And in the silence sweet I forget you
(Sad to admit, but everyone and all
seem not to be when I’m lulled by fancy.)
Sit there – empty – wait for the Muse to come –
I am troubled again with lyric fever.
My soul shakes, it reverberates, it wants
to burst the dam of reticence, I dream
of how the verses I’ve not yet finished
will pour down Time, cross into languages
unknown to me, leap continents and seas,
the children that my visions bore, upright
complete and singing for all to hear them!
Invisible throngs fill me – demon? Muse?
ancestor poets? poets yet to come?—
Take me! Fill my reveries! Make these songs!

XI
So I’ll say everything I meant to say.
The brave thoughts have come – rhymes run to meet them
on winged feet. My fingers reach for the pen,
and the neglected pen says “Ink! And where’s
that yellow tablet whose narrow green lines
seem always to pull the right words downward?”
Just wait – a little tea – just hold the pen –
wait calmly and the verses will follow.
Thus a still ship slumbers on a still sea.
Hark: chimes! now all hands leap to the rigging.
Exhale! the sails are filled with ideas,
they belly in the wind – the groaning mast –
the monster poem moves to deep water –
the harbor far behind the foaming track.

XII
It sails, but where is this ship taking me?…


A N N I V E R S A R I U M   X X X V I

OCTOBER THOUGHTS IN WARTIME

What does October mean?
     To the old Bolshevik the month we finally took what was ours —
     to the old émigré the month we lost everything,
     and had to flee to the border.
To the Spanish and Portuguese, Italians and Greeks,
taking café in treeless plazas,
the aftermath of equinox, a few brown slurries of oak leaves
skittering from Alps to the sea, not a time, but a passing,

To the Chinese, a mottled dream of maple, gingko,
ailanthus and willow, in which one pale
and angular scholar, his beard as thin as an artist’s brush,
takes tea in his gazebo, as the autumn’s white tiger
runs down the bounding deer.

For me, in this New England city,
it is not quite autumn.
I spy the moon’s new crisped crescent
hovering above the Hopkins house.
An angry Mars is at its nearest —
all these heavenly bodies tugging at treetops.

The Unitarian bell tolls eight, as Uranus,
a dim flickering, grazes the steeple
as though curious to know
for whom the clabber sounds the bronze.

The weary earth has had enough explosions.
Winter will yield up autumn,
if autumn will erase its merry carnage.
If leaves do not fall, perhaps the heads of state
will leave decisions     undecided,
prisoners un-decapitated,
toxins unmanufactured,
uranium un-enriched —
perhaps the deadly elements
will go unmined, the gray bombers
unmanufactured,

the hateful thought, snug in its walnut,
from its high branch
unfalling.


A N N I V E R S A R I U S -  X X X V I I

THE BLACK HUNTSMAN

(after Victor Hugo’s Le chasseur noir)

“Who goes there? You, passer-by,
why choose these somber woods,
vast crowds of crows a-flutter —
no place to be with a rainstorm coming!”
“Make way! I am the one
who moves in shadow.
Make way! — for the Black Huntsman!”
The leaves on the trees,
     which the wind has stirred,
are whistling, and I have heard
that all this forest
     will be ashiver with shrieks
when the storm-cloud clears
and the moon shines down
on the Witches’ Sabbath!
Why tarry here? Go chase the doe,
run down the fallow deer,
out of the forest to the unplowed fields.
And more than deer: this is your night
to bag a Tsar, or at least,
an archduke of Austria,
     O Black Huntsman!
The leaves on the trees —
     Hasten, Black Huntsman,
     to sound your horn-call,
     fasten your leggings
     for a long ride.
     The easy stag who comes grazing
     in plain sight by the manor?
     Ah, no, ride down the King,
     ride down a Bishop or two,
          Black Huntsman!

The leaves on the trees —
     It rains, the thunder
     roars, the flood
     sends rivers raging.
     Refuge engulfed, the fox
     flees this way, that way,
     no shelter anywhere, no hope!
     Take not the easy prey:
     there goes a spy on horseback,
     there a judge in his carriage —
          take them, Black Huntsman!
The leaves on the trees —
     Do not be moved
     by those monastic flutterings
     in the wild oat-fields,
     those spasms of St. Anthony’s
          Satanic possession.
     Hunt down the abbot,
     spare not the monk,
          O Black Huntsman!
The leaves on the trees—
     Your hounds are on the scent.
     Go for the bears;
     leave no wild boar unslaughtered.
     And while you’re at it,
     doing what you do so well,
     Black Huntsman,
     hunt down the Pope, the Emperor!
The leaves on the trees —
     The wily wolves side-step you,
     so loose the pack upon them.
     A stream! The track is lost
     in a teeming waterfall.
     But what is this? A president
     without his secret service men!
     And there in that cave,
     a vice-president cowering!
     Run, hounds! Bring them to ground!
          Well done, O Black Huntsman!
The leaves on the trees,
     which the wind has stirred
     are falling, and I have heard
     that the dark Sabbath
     with all its raucous shrieks
     has fled the forest.
     The cloud is pierced
     by the cock’s bright crow:
     the dawn is here!
All things regain their original force.
My nation becomes herself again,
     so beautiful to behold,
a white archangel robed in light,
     even to you, Black Huntsman!
The leaves on the trees,
     which the wind has stirred
     are falling, and I have heard
     that the dark Sabbath
     with all its raucous shrieks
     has fled the forest.
     The cloud is pierced
     by the cock’s bright crow:
     the dawn is here!

August 21, 2008
From Victor Hugo’s Chatiments: “Le Chasseur noir”

 

 

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