Back To Back for David Oliver The terms of being together
narratives of circumference brings greatest heartache how (before very long) the centre is a lost cause two lovers at opposite ends of an ever growing circle stopped like a coin put on edge a plate washed and shelved or an egg unset spinning a yarn without an ending then stilled, finally the heart.
I know how eternal hope springs now 25 years without recession a promise of a job or a decent wage of no redundancies or cutbacks then that premise of power in the heart with no electricity how a cat comes to you for warmth a small suspension of reason and how we shout and cheer that hope will spring eternal and a few asses in Parliament and 12 submarines make a difference in the election of fools no comment
The Dream of the Snake A horse shied from the track I don’t remember any of that though a ghost once tried to climb on top of me I sent her back to mother and my dreams thereafter were merciful except for when I was chased by the gods it seems I had figured out they had so fooled with time that we could not be gods I gathered all my poisons up and going deep underground I remember biting the earth to remove all time forever from the hinges of the world
Sometimes a ditch makes a body stop gloop or soup or sand one itch from staying there one reason for altering a mind anyway, this is my declaration my didactic, my fierce invitation it's the Sunday I'm in this bar trying to write you this poem it's a perfect autumn evening I'm making notes to perfection on the subject of making love I wonder why more women don't just make their menfolk laugh.
I would enter the gate under the electric wires and like Han Shan leave the dust in the road walk into the mountains leaving no trace behind except that I would take my turtle and my cat and at night by the fire we would tell our stories of reincarnation these desperate bids to live again and how maybe the Buddha got it wrong
The interpretive work Of being human the dirt Under those table legs the Dirt under the speakers yes The pretty dirt in our minds The skirting boards the dust That follows for ten months The years that we just let go There’s no point to it no All those bicycles in a tree Being dumb seeking truth A vacuum cleaning nothing A loud monkey shedding hair.
A Kind of Poetry To discover a tree's memories is impossible. To seek a pebble's experience is also impossible. We spy on water's motion but in the end we still can't touch its core. The cloud has always been there, we exhaust our energy to understand its will, yet there's no hope it will reveal the sky's mysteries.
Poetry also has the will of clouds with words like rain, to avoid madness it creates more madness. Just as when love is written down, it loses half of its sincerity. When explained, there is only a layer of sticky mist left. No one is quick or deft enough to capture poetry for long. Everything perfect contains a dark cave.
I can't explain the attraction of this cave. A kind of tranquility, which carries a greater sacrifice undissolved by light. A kind of dizziness from this shore to the farther shore, crossing freely. It has enslaved every golden finger. A wild cave, harboring minerals, ice and feathers a few symbols, and I still don't know what it is.
I. I watch a friend killing mosquitoes in a Shanghai restaurant tonight with an electric tennis racket and yes me too the slowing time a minute watching fifty years to remember an owl came out at night and I remember the cat racing out and still I wonder what we would give to go on living if we would give up love and joy and art and good food and learning if most of us (say this very quietly) would even give up our minds II. It looks like it would hurt but of course Coke is the real thing and the consumer is always the sucker Coca-Cola & Disney the perfect marriage
What do they need us for? Do I really want Minnie’s phone number? When she finally takes off her costume she spends the next four hours naked Mickey comes home at 3am with a dozen stolen Cokes
he mixes with Bacardi and passes out she poses like Barbie for a minute and then cries for an hour it looks like it hurts
This time I really thought I would go to heaven praise God exhausted in victory the sword slipping from my grasp O eternity God is great while the beams of angels sing my hand reaching for her smile and all the horrors receding into morning in a garden full of flowers there is only one God I go for a walk my sargeant calls
After an absence that was no one’s fault we are shy with each other, and our words seem younger than we are, as if we must return to the time we met and work ourselves back to the present, the way you never read a story from the place you stopped but always start each book all over again. Perhaps we should have stayed tied like mountain climbers by the safe cord of the phone, its dial our own small prayer wheel, our voices less ghostly across the miles, less awkward than they are now. I had forgotten the grey in your curls, that splash of winter over your face, remembering the younger man you used to be.
And I feel myself turn old and ordinary, having to think again of food for supper, the animals to be tended, the whole riptide of daily life hidden but perilous pulling both of us under so fast. I have dreamed of our bed as if it were a shore where we would be washed up, not this striped mattress we must cover with sheets. I had forgotten all the old business between us, like mail unanswered so long that silence becomes eloquent, a message of its own. I had even forgotten how married love is a territory more mysterious the more it is explored, like one of those terrains you read about, a garden in the desert where you stoop to drink, never knowing if your mouth will fill with water or sand.
Humans start in different orbits like planets migrate over time across different seas of love the distance is immaterial the wind inside the weather touches a piece of fruit on a tree and its short story is detached the distance is immaterial vanished by a summer rainbow you lie in bed and remember the distance is immaterial rounds changed circles changed space gathered up on a black map what you really hear is gone.
Children of the cold sun and the broken horizon, 0 secret faces, multitudes, eyes of inscrutable grief, great breath of millions, in unknown crowds or alone, rooms of dreamers above the cement abyss, —and I, who all night restive in the unsleeping rain, awoke and saw the windows covered with tears.
I heard, like the noise of melting rivers, the concourse of the living all hours mingled, violent, murmuring, or bright: the cheers; the radio; the metal shriek of the accident; the whisper of hired affection, hit of the week, applause; gunfire on the screen; and at night the tragic houses issuing like voluble flame the outcries of the city.
Yet none pronounced the truth, no hand disclosed the heartbreak behind the muted door, denying all. I longed to read letters therefore which were never sent, to pierce walls, covers, silences, part the sad lips, to stand by warm bed and witness the instantaneous dream, put my hand in men's foreheads and clasp the beating spring.
The girl in the park cried Juan! Juan! but it was not I. None answered, but I felt the breath of unknowable love. Dawn silent: an old woman climbed with dry hands the iron stoop where her daughter feared to give birth. None spoke, but waited to watch the discolored twins drawn forth, wrapped on the bed together, born to neglect.
Light on the painful eyelids, agony of beginnings; the assault naked against the edges of the world; then the long childhood inexplicably kind or cruel; the boy fingering himself, the flush of the blind pulse, the maiden touching the first blood of sex; still ignorant of desire, the double wilderness.
Life smiles with heavy breast: her children run forward with shouts, hunger, the impulse of free affection; but each gets punished for his open face, each falls twisted, twisted returns, gets dreaded blow, and turns back screaming into that room at last, into himself obscure, restful with lonely forces, like the sea.
The young return, —but cold, with skin-tight mask, seeing this city honors most the most false: the lady behind glass, untouched by human hand, with plaster pubis, thigh, and docile belly lifting the admired fabric up for sale, — while the living long to wear her enameled eyes.
Within is dearer merchandise: men and numbered words cold, vehement, or admiring, as the price demands; where the painter hangs for sale beside his work, the critic, the peddler, and the smiling acrobat; toady and plagiarist for the price of one; and a masked surgeon offering jars of happiness.
The sheen, the glamour, and the marvelous fanfare, the alluring neon and the porcelain smile, the arranged caress of furs, the forearm blazing with dollars, the headlines bought in advance for the subnormal beauty; and all life long the shoppers with laboring hearts desire and possess at last: the corpse in cellophane.
Black halloween! I walked with the crooked nun; heard the cruel father sob in the empty room, and households dining together in daily hatred; the posed hysteria, and the idiot calm; and those whose love was poisoned with delay, I saw still smile, — and felt in myself forever the anguish of understanding.
0 lost people! 0 vendors of desperate myths! Who prints the cold path of stars that promise voyages? Who markets the daydream to the tubercular, puts obscene clothing on the frigid wife, makes woman its soft automaton, and man its bed, and brands the false face on the living flesh of the child?
I read the smooth journals, but they gave no news of this. Who rents the cells of this city? Whom shall I learn to kill? The mysterious pencil? The dealer in abstract food? Or past the chrome-steel and the politeness of corridors, with row of buttons summoning tears or flattery, at his old powerful desk, the immaculate imbecile?
As I walked on the glossy avenue, and with morose fire thought the immense proud fraudulence to vivisect, I heard the derision and the girls' duet of laughter of two who stopped before me with flaunting hair, insulting the photo of the noted man, who, finger in his printed cheek, could not reply.
All three we drank together, mentioning love, delights, friends, quick passion, and the fine pale sky. So rapid cognac glittered in our heads, while I to each gave sumptuous years; to one her house with windows full of the green sea light; and foretold one to have love wherever she goes.
And late, after the headlong passage of first desire, now two alone, we lay awake in murmuring ease, and spoke again of happiness, and of the elan of flight, and as outdoors the high branch yielding to invisible air, so she to her wish to learn the touch of that wand, hold motor, and ride on the immeasurable gestures of space.
Night dwindling, from how many tranquil hands, white morning extends the beautiful directions of the word; luminous chasms, city of vertical south, north, upward, dark march of windows, inlaid each by that star softening with precious light in streams of dawn toward the close court, the black leap, and the suicide's open eye.
Like a fall forward into time too fast, is death, springing in each the coil of irreversible years: the lymph and architecture of the self, unique delirium, lust, and dreams of lightning, the body remembered in luscious movement or at ease, names lost forever, and childhood of wonderful snow.
Knees broken backward, refugees from life, leaving behind the houses they have lived in, the sweat on the walls, the toilet, the hateful embrace, the colored mottoes and the step of the insane son; or failure driving like point of dynamite into the heart lifelong, till they enter the impossible wall.
0 space that lifts the monoplane strong did suck them down, this act upon this stone; and shadows on it of living people, noon, and dark twilight, and night with argon peaks, matchless city, terrible, and I cried aloft What monster, 0 what monstrous foot here trod, leaving in blood the measure of its corruption?
Rages in this packed town, in this wilderness of hands, beast over mankind, ruling with cruel mark; on the delicate mind, on the beautiful mouth like syphilis, sometime on everyone, on myself horrible I have seen it: the perversion by money, wasting, mad, and universal, measure of humanity, and its heavy assassin.
Here the strict labor of the many must support the monotony of the useless; and luxury is got with smiles, false kindness, marriage, or embezzlement; he who can feign desire, praise poison, or hang by his teeth, lives well, accumulates the powerful bond, receives inhuman honor, —but the kind man is strangled.
Vaulting metropolis, under whose diagrams of eloquent light wrestle decay and energy, both blind — I went in your purest hours, and met with friends, some with familiar calm, or gay, or drunk in the bright rooms, but I heard the terrifying pulse of other selves: on the face of each I touched unknown the invisible tear.
In the membranes of the skull there lie in millionfold powers and memories, and I find them forth often: the deep smile, and the simple day at the zoo, the voices over the bay, the avowal, and the window with leaves, the joint of the thigh of the beloved person, and the wish to live calmly on the highest level.
Yet who is it crawls on the subway's iron floor to sing where all must give or listen, since the door is shut? 0 in the proud mirrors of the brain, the ugly clerk I see is myself! and the murderer trapped on the fire-escape; and the desperate salesman; the thief; and the pale girl bought to open herself again to the stranger's thrust.
I see a boy's hand move as pale as glass, and women sleeping with infinite eyes, and all, all I see are innocent; not walls, nor men brutal, remote, stunned, querulous, weak, or cold do crimes so massive, but the hideous scheme stands guilty: the usurpation of man over man.
Thus in the grating rack and torsion of society the inmost being cracks; gulfs there with groaning cliffs disfigure hope; and secret fires grow; and chasms unknown hold paralyzed the maelstroms of love; despair with frigid pinnacles, hatred, silent catastrophes; crevasses of self the self dares not discover, —
Between the inner and the outer face, between the cold palm and the incestuous mind, between the thought, the pleasure, and the indifference, between the bright talk and the solitude, between the oratory and the massacre, between the music and the soundless scream.
In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn Raising high its colors in a shiver of triumph?
On plains where the naked girls awake, When they harvest clover with their light brown arms Roaming round the borders of their dreams — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree, Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets That floods their names with the singing of birds — tell me Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the world?
On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers, Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes, Never sad and never grumbling — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That cries out the new hope now dawning?
Tell me, is that the mad pomegranate tree waving in the distance, Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame, A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more, With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go To unscented shores — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?
High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates Arrogant, full of danger — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That shatters with light the demon’s tempests in the middle of the world That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day Richly embroidered with scattered songs — tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?
In petticoats of April the first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?
Sex tonight is like the rain or a bowl of salty Mongolian tea and it’s sort of like boarding a train ah there is chaos and there is mystery write it the way water flows down a hill do it like the train gets us where we're going
an enemy of the state when I told the truth the same as I always do how many birds did you see today I saw the ones you did not bless us all the end of space is not the limit of the face though edges betray the commons the space is still unoccupied my family my friends the state became my enemy when they took me away though the edges betray I will not mourn you I hope this is not your life god bless us all
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. ... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. ... I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” (1967)
The notion of no second chance frets the guitar, the history of Peter Pan a treasure that goes forth to be lost. A lessening of spirit? Perish the thought. You and I have a few more chances left and, at any rate, actuarily speaking you’ve got more riding your way than me. So now please let us not conflate the fiction that we like to read with the fictions we like to make. You can travel the seven seas. A piece of weed, a piece of shell a thousand sunsets, all were different in every one a restive breeze. Faraway the future, countless dreams ships underway, the holds are full everyone waiting for the winds. A song to ring your ears. Mountain, anchor, whale bird, water, engines. Friend. Every heart.
Wait a minute how can there be a confusion of tongues if we are wise and kind and we speak with love imagine that my dear I spoke and you heard no babble and likewise me language like a sweet fruit in an orchard kissed by the sun and everybody blessed.
As a child, fresh out of the hospital with tape covering the left side of my face, I began to count birds. At age fifty the sum total is precise and astonishing, my only secret. Some men count women or cars they've owned, their shirts -- long sleeved and short sleeved -- or shoes, but I have my birds, excluding, of course, the extraordinary days: the twenty-one thousand snow geese and sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache, the sky blinded by great frigate birds in the Pacific off Anconcito, Ecuador; the twenty-one thousand pink flamingos an Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania; the vast flocks of sea birds on the Seri coast of the Sea of Cortez down in Sonora that left at nightfall, then reappearing, resuming their exact positions at dawn; the one thousand cliff swallows nesting in the sand cliffs of Pyramid Point, their small round burrows like eyes, really the souls of the Anasazi who flew here a thousand years ago to wait the coming of the Manitou.
And then there were the usual, almost deadly birds of the soul -- the crow with silver harness I rode one night as if she were a black, feathered angel. the birds I became to escape unfortunate circumstances -- how the skin ached as the feathers shot out toward the light; the thousand birds the dogs helped me shoot to become a bird (grouse, woodcock, duck, dove, snipe, pheasant, prairie chicken, etc.).
On my deathbed I'll write this secret number on a slip of paper and pass it to my wife and two daughters. It will be a hot evening in June and they might be glancing out the window at the thunderstorm's approach from the west. Looking past their eyes and a dead fly on the window screen I'll wonder if there's a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds. O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried me along on this bloody voyage, carry me now into that cloud into the marvel of this final night.
I cannot visit your grave to offer flowers but am destined to spend all my life reading your poetry across a blizzard of a thousand miles days of celebration smashed to pieces, my soul trembling
finally able to write what's in one's heart of hearts still unable to live what's in one's heart of hearts this is the tragedy we share your mouth is even more reticent, that is
a secret of fate, you can't say it out loud all you can do is endure, endure, while your pen leaves ever deeper marks— in order to obtain, you relinquish in order to be born, you demand that you die, die all the way
this is you, from woe upon woe you find me you test me, making my life suddenly painful from snow to snow, on the roaring, muddy Beijing buses I read your poetry, in my heart I
shout out all those noble names all that exile, sacrifice, testimony, all those souls meeting in the quiver of mass all that glitter inside death, and my
very own soil! tears in the eyes of Northern livestock maple leaves on fire in the wind darkness in the people's stomachs, hunger, how could I cast all that aside and talk about myself
just like you must weather the attack of a blizzard yet more fierce so as to stand guard over your Russia, your Larissa, the beautiful, the one not to be wounded again Your adventure one dares not believe
with the cold of snow all over, right in front of your eyes! and then, by candlelight, there's Levitan's autumn and in Pushkin's rhyme there's death and praise and sin spring is here, the bare black of boundless earth
turn your soul toward all of this, poet this is happiness, it is the highest decree that rises from the heart it is not hardship, it is all this that you shoulder in the end still unstoppable, coming forth to search for us
to dig us up: it demands symmetry or a requiem raging louder than its echo and we, how would we be worthy to appear before your grave? this is a crying shame! this is the Beijing winter in December
this is sorrow in your eyes, inquiries, interrogation like a bell sound weighing down on my soul this is pain, this is happiness, to say it out loud I need ice and snow to fill my life
The last line is great sent into outer space for alien bacteria to read illuminated by the 5 moons then for a million years before any creature invents fire a rainy Sunday in Cambodia before one creature invents fire then for a million years illuminated by the 5 moons for alien bacteria to read sent into outer space the last line is great
For so many years I've dreamt of writing poetry like a conversation Words just rolling out
For many years, I have also said said many things, but what I’ve said wasn’t like that
In self-reflection I ask: Why is this? Why can't poetry ever be straightforward, can't it be like the feathers on a bird, like the leaves on a mulberry tree
When I was in Chinese class I was still too small but my courage was conversely large, munching literature gnawing words, that starving look of swallowing the jujube and even its pit
Only now do I know that from early on language was like a sharp blade cutting up my heart never to be mended again Cows die under the knife and can never again use their tongues to be near that fresh grass
Sometimes I am scared to sleep Because after falling asleep language becomes cluttered difficult to control and command Some verbs go to ill-fitting places As if apples did not always hang on apple trees
But sometimes I also yearn to sleep Yearn for that untimely verb to enter the dominion of pondering day and night That is the whole world speaking from back to front All mirrors shattered to pieces Words not always being spoken from one’s mouth The time I was most pleased was when the tips of my toes poured out the prattling of lovers
I want to talk about fish again This thing entangled with my life Every time it swishes it makes me shiver
It gurgles making me continuously dream, those sounds always want me to think that I’m close to the headwaters I already have no need to open my mouth, don't need to open my mouth
Some sounds are left over Some peels are left over, how do we deal with them?
When I was a child I liked to break up Chinese characters, in those meaningless brush strokes look for secrets I am not Han, yet am also distant from my own ethnicity I don’t understand my mother tongue, those folksongs are only ever guests in the Han language
What else can I do? maybe forever listen to those whirling maple leaves in my heart
That will be a glorious reduction of heaven without the buzzes of electronic space shrunk to the size of the mote in the eye then the way our dreams will wake us to laugh together at the kitten who has managed a climb to the top of the bookcase and upside down is worrying a tasselled bookmark to leave a claw-mark on a book of Chinese history and the scar house factory is dark and boarded up amid the cuts and brokenness and the missing whats of all we held and all the gentleness we have left a lifetime of books and animals that made us fools while our birthmarks are the only words we study now.
The animals the fishes and the birds fly the emus scoot when they’re frightened they were so bigAls das Kind Kind war the bugs plant life and the Swamp Thing I think of them as I drink a strong coffee the cheese pears bacon the satay sauce the butter oils and chemical food flavours nothing in the sky tonight no moon no stars I see Dorothea Lange’s old photos of battlers who entered the Depression for just a minute now it's like we’ll destroy anything for a feed O the expense by which nothing ever comes to see the parting clouds the moon the mess you want to write the poem that fixes Babylon.
As I grow up, I begin to have a shadow. I cannot ignore it, unless it merges into another, greater shadow — night. But whose shadow is night? The earth casts its shadow on the moon, hence the lunar eclipse: the moon casts its shadow on the earth, hence the solar eclipse. All of us live in shadow. On the other side of the shadow lies fire; and shadow gives us our only basis for measuring the sun. In daily life, because there is only one sun, nothing can have multiple shadows; as for our souls, the shadow is the sum total of desire, selfishness, fear, vanity, jealousy, cruelty and death. Shadow endows things with reality. To strip a thing of its reality, one only needs to strip it of its shadow. The sea has no shadow; therefore it feels like an illusion. Objects in our dreams have no shadow; therefore they form another world. Thus people have every reason to believe that ghosts have no shadow.