Letter to Poetry

Dear poetry, why so elusive? Like a dragonfly,

blown away by a tornado or a quail that runs away,

not that quickly, into the bushes. That’s how poetry

is, snake-like, more venomous than cuddly,

something I go out to mine, a hard nugget

of turquoise, but then avoid, a sudden

thunderstorm. Honestly, sometimes it

sends me inside. I want to stay hidden

Maybe under the covers. I like to nap.

But poetry doesn’t wait, it enters your dream

like an ex-lover, disguised in a mask and cap,

still wanting to stab you. Is that how it seems?

Sometimes, even in a dream, you have to expose

your skin to the knife, you have to surrender first,

you have to understand the pain. Poetry knows

what you crave, like a riverbed asking for thirst.

every generation seems doomed to repeat the same problem


Today they riot in Chicago and New York and Baltimore.

Before that, Ferguson, and Brooklyn and L.A.

Since America has been a country we’ve been at war

with ourselves. Or let me be honest: they,

the whites, we have been at war with black men. Four score,

a hundred years, a century, more. In 1919, play-

ing at Lake Michigan, a young black boy crossed a line, bore

the weight of ensuing riots on his thin corpse. Today

this same black boy wears a hoodie, does not answer, Sir,

does not defer, physically, to the Law. They will say

he was armed, he attacked, that’s what Police are for.

They shoot; we riot; played by the game.

Tell me, Fire, who burns in the flame?

blur of light I took deliberately,
moving the camera because I had an idea
of motion and noise, music, laughter,
clink and tumble of glassware the blur would
convey—I took then trashed it, because
in the end, the instant end, the image
did not carry, was neither tenor nor vehicle,
did not at all achieve: it is gone, not even
a digital trace: but I remember it, little failure
of execution. I’ve forgotten the exact song
playing when I shot it—fill in some excellent
but tasteful jazz, vocal variety. I remember
the bass I ate, the rose of blood at the bone,
and how that blood made me a little sick,
and how I tried not to look at it on my
otherwise empty plate. The photo is gone,
and its little pretensions, but the bone
and its blood, I remember that perfectly.


This one is missing its passage, says the guide,
by which she means, some farmer from beyond 
no doubt took stones from an ancient tomb
to build a fence. We’re here to learn what long-dead

farmers, beyond our knowledge, meant to do
with their dead. All around us a massive kyrie
chants: at every stone fence, church, tomb:
it’s a quiet persistent explanatory keen,

that only the dead understood as they sang it
to each other and to the one about to be burned
in this graveyard now evidenced by the scatter
of kerbstone and uprights and flats:

rumors of burnt bone remnants now sing to us,
though what we hear is the recitative of birds:
they alight on a sunken flat, a broken circle-stone,
and as we draw near, scatter to the sky.

The recital of facts from the diorama inside
we rehearse: the graves in the field turn knowledge
into a whine of wind and a tatter of rain.
There’s a queen supposed to have been buried

under a cairn on the high mountain. No one knows
for sure, the cairn itself a late fillip to the ritual.
She wears her battle dress under a ton of rock,
they say, ready to fight. The cairn is visible

and if we had come earlier, we’d have climbed to it,
left a stone upon the ancient tomb to help her
be ready to fight, long into her afterlife: who
readied her for this long, hidden passage?

On the fifteen hundred hour train from Sligo to Dublin
On the ten hour flight from Salt Lake to Paris
In a bed four floors under the rain soaked clouds over
the River Garavoge, the ones contemplating
the way the town needs a good soaking

When the weather was about to change on the outside
of the glass building where the second floor bed was
When the rain fell on the balcony, albeit silently
When the bed seemed unaccountably hard, the sheets
improbably rough when all the joints presented themselves

and their complaints to the brain for its deliberation
at 3 a.m. and the members of the wedding all returned
to their rooms with Guinness coursing in their veins,
and the hard bed, the joints and their complaints,
and the rain all together accused the night of an

overweening hostility to their rest: and now,
in the white room to which we returned for one last night,
I hesitate to lie down: I’ll wait for night to turn its head
before I slip on the black nightdress, silent as a secret,
sleep to erase these nerves, celebrants of the electric wake:

Because it is old, I said when I read about it.
Because it is religious, and because I, too,
am religious
. There it is, in the middle of town,
just one street over from the river we’d been
following. At the entrance, the docent

hands us a laminated document describing
what we suppose we are seeing–a dormitory
a story above, a kitchen, a refectory. These
all to be parsed from the rubble of a building,
of the body of the building, its remains.

The grace of what’s left is in the nave, a carved
stone high altar, part of a rood screen. The ceremony
of the place somehow still speaking. We climb
the next level up. This is where the friars ate.
They slept below. The laminate points to a small

balcony called a desk, whence one would have read
to the others from scripture as they readied for sleep.
Under an alcove–what it held once we can only guess
–stand headstones, tilted, sideways, the names
by now softened, effaced. In this north Atlantic town,

it’s a wonder any name, etched or carved,
survives, even in stone. Only the ambulatory
–three halls with pillars and arches on half walls,
looking out onto the current grass–seems whole.
I walk down each passage more than once, sheltered

from the soft rain, trying on the rhyme and echo
of the pillars arching away in procession, looking up
at grass or moss lining the stone laid in curves to form
the corners.Would the friars have felt this elegance,
the art of it? Little wildflowers thread the grass

and even the walls. The sky is low and gray.
The abbey is perhaps the reason there is a town
at all. It’s hard to suss the priority. For awhile it was even
the town’s cemetery, the apparent destiny of every churchyard.
The yard, even the church itself, is littered with graves.

requires, first, lessons in concentration. think of that cloud of dust
you only just now dislodged from under the bed when you were
looking for the other shoe. why was the second shoe under the bed?
this is an example of a distracting thought you must set aside.

pick up the cloud in your hands. how soft it is, how made of
what you dare not contemplate. this will be the stuff of trans-
formation: do not think of binning it, not yet: you still have not

discovered its nature: light, uncompacted, its tufts and feathers
(metaphor is allowed) still allowing a puff of breath to make

its way, to move the cloud from your hand to the air, from the air

to the floor. its nature is to gather, is to greaten, but in secret,
in quiet places where such magnitudes can work undisturbed

for weeks and months, especially under the bed of the likes
of you. there, there. housekeeping is not what we’re after:
we seek nothing less than magic, which is why the inadvertent

vowels of disgust you utter when you bring the dust nebula
forth with the all-but-forgotten shoe is precisely correct: turn
disgust into surprise, into interest, and you’re nearly there:
this constellation of the gods know what is your own material:

(‘conjuring for beginners’ was the name of an exhibit/installation, or series thereof, at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, 2012.)


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