Thursday, July 16, 2020

Lost Attic Nights

Last Night by Night

All the minds thinking thoughts are young,
The physical copies of texts
Rarely more than centuries old,

Beyond two thousand years, fragments—
Past Egyptian, Sumerian,
Nothing, unless it’s still hidden.

I wake up locked in the attic
Of a house I’ve never noticed,
Surrounded by spiders and dust.

This is a metaphor, of course.
Every word is a metaphor,
Mostly undead and still twitching.

The attic has a small window,
Just enough to show me the moon
And let me know that this is night,

And, the luxury of a moon
Considered, it must be last night.
Why do I wake up in the past?

I fall asleep in the present.
Afternoon light makes me drowsy.
Ah, let’s open this dusty box.

Well. Folders of old poetry,
A mix of scripts and languages,
What’s this, Harrapan? Linear A?

What’re we looking at here?
Ciphers of the death of language?
Something lost? Or just invented?

The question about poetry,
Once someone has recorded it,
Amounts to whether it amounts

To so much glossolalia
Or genuine xenoglossy.
This looks like the latter to me.


Ten Words and Ten More

Belts of dimmed cliffs singed
Crows smoke felled. Fire years

Drowned in tea-black tears
Burned for us our sins.


Time Traveler

You can only go forward.
The future is bored with you.

The future is privileged,
And richer than you, and rude.

You can snap to attention,
Quit your philosophizing,

And slap a witty rebuke
In the future’s fat, blank face

As if it were your student.
Don’t be stupid. This yawning

Insolence of your future
Is your opportunity.

Jump into that opening,
Fool, let yourself be made small.

Look into that arrogant,
Gaping maw and do not pause.

There’s only one way this works.
You can only go forward.


The Historian and the Pine, Cut Down

“There’s a hidden world of spin,
To which the table remains
Totally oblivious.

In that hidden world, the fate
Of the coin is decided.”
A table just stops the fall.

Probability in art
Has a table of its own,
Nicknamed loss or destruction.

When the surface interrupts
The tumbling of the ideas,
Possibilities collapse,

But not, as with coin flips, half
Or half—maybe everything
Of the subtlest art ever,

While some mediocre lines
End up in the museum
Of fine civilization.

And we don’t usually know
That a toss occurred, that loss
Struck out any of the work.

Or we only know the loss—
Which libraries were destroyed,
Which temples were vandalized,

Whose graves were robbed, whose cave walls
Defaced, whose museums bombed.
Is it possible, before

The near-inevitable
Interruption of great loss,
The work’s fate was decided

In the spinning of the toss?
Nearly chaotic, random
Puffs of airy happenstance

Decided which songs, which texts,
Which richly painted figures
Wound up pointed in harm’s way,

All of Y but none of X,
Book eight gone, the others safe.
Every event breaks a fall,

And then we read the results.
It’s all tasseomancy—
Alexandria, quanta.

We interpret the tumbled
Remains of the past to scry
What’s next from what we have left.

But yes, Herodotus, pines
Cut down can send up new shoots,
Like other trees. You were wrong.


Skies Stand Up from Dust

Reader, if you’re ever there,
This poem is in part for you
But not for readers only.

It’s time we addressed ourselves
As well, having arrived here
Downstream from thousands of years

Of older phrases, glowing,
Broadcast, printed, written, signed,
And spoken. Those speakers then,

Bones and flesh, didn’t intend
To address unimagined
Flesh and bones that speak today.

They had no idea we were
Going so far beyond them.
Nor can you possibly know.

Language was never only
For language’s producers,
But how meanings learned ourselves

And murmured through the bodies
Redirecting us. We’ve carved
Throaty channels to the sea.

We have no idea what sea,
But we have been gathering
Momentum now for ages.

We are tumbling in a rush,
Waves reflecting lights in us,
Carrying, dropping your dust.


Love Arising from Friendship

“Clouds, mountains, plants, and trees,”
Are frivolous subjects
Suggested Li Jue.

Poor, ignorant poets,
What can we gain from these
With factions to appease?

The emperor did not
Agree, but he was weak.
Who, on the other sides

Of the world at the time
Would have even thought poems
Would more than embellish

The memories of reigns?
But we still have Li Jue,
Everywhere and always—

What do clouds and mountains
Have in common with trees?
They’re not human beings.

Resources, scenery—
Keep an eye on them, fine.
But the only subject

Of any importance
Concerns what humans do.
Poems should apostrophize

Tyrants, martyrs, heroes,
If poets want to be

Taken seriously.
The weird ways that language
Can get away from us,

From our moral toolkits,
Can slide from alliance
With our alliances,

Praise poems for noble deeds
Moving on to friendship,
Then to love arising

From friendship, then to love
For no worthy reason,
And then to admiring

Anything words can name—
Clouds, mountains, plants, and trees,
Words themselves, poetry—

These should be monitored,
Castigated, advised,
Never loved and admired.


Memory and Total Loss

Who or what within us,
Who or what within this
Does the remembering?

Whoever, whatever
Answers the question, I
Guess, which doesn’t answer

The question, since language
Moves in all directions,
Inventing the present,

Inventing the fiction
Of something permanent
As words for permanence.

What are the oldest words
Within the rushing streams
Of terms as they’re spoken,

Passed on as consciously
As the oldest patterns
Still found in genetics,

Terms older than any
Form of written language
Or, if not words, pieces,

Fragments, morphemes, phrases
That created meanings
Still being created?

No one remembers them,
But they’re our memories.
And who are they talking

To now out of new mouths,
If not to each other
About who or what’s next?


Created in Translation

Every beast with language is a psychopomp
Ferrying words and phrases between the shores
Of meanings past and present, lights in our chests,
Flames in our eyes from their lamps inside our skulls,
Flicking out in small sparks from our speaking mouths—

The souls of the dead are the words of the dead
That never belonged to the dead, not to them
Or their ancestors, no more than in the myth
The souls belonged to the ferryman they gave
Only a single, gold coin from each of them—

Each time a human breathes a word, pens a line,
Copies a document, deciphers a script,
More ghostly souls pass over the black river
To vanish through the woods on its farther shore,
The only known magic in this universe,

Given that what arrived for us to ferry
Was neither dead nor alive but dealt with us,
Got in our shallow boat, grew more numerous
As we poled and sweated and hauled on our ropes,
And then, translated when with us, escaped us.



We can’t function without comparisons.
Who could write in the certainty no one
Would ever read and compare that writing
To other things written, other things read?

Let’s try. Say the wreckage will continue.
Every line in this sequence will be lost
And not after a long time, not after
Any consideration first. Unread,

Never perused or evaluated,
An accidental mandala of words.
What then is our value or our function?
In a world that seems to save everything,

Meanings make for wonderful defiance.
We’re miracles in that we’re forgotten.


Questions of Conceit

Of all the fine occasions
For extravagant language,
Humans wasted most of them,

Instead parading these gifts
Of flesh and society—
Hazy phrases, gilded wisps—

Often as not for praising
The pitiful achievements
Of locally noted men.

Has there ever been a form
Of poetry more silly
Than the grand panegyric

For the momentary man?
Tuned phrases flew through the air—
The izibongos, the odes,

The coronation verses—
And maybe we carried whiffs
Of the celebrated life

With us to other lives, less
Noted, after the great life
Was long gone and otherwise

Wholly forgotten. But why
Not use us as well to play
With occasional displays

Of how knowing enough words
Arranged in gauzy questions
For yourself—not in service

Of someone else no greater
Than your anonymous soul—
Can rarefy hopelessness?

Great hazy questions of life!
Oh, timid, trivial minds,
You could be grand as your kings,

Could appear almost awesome
And bordering on wisdom,
If you wrapped yourselves in us.

We’re going on anyway,
The magic you made of us,
The losses you hid in us,

Past chiefs and commoners,
The grief-stricken and the proud,
Why not have this dance with us?


Not All Loss Is Waste—Not All Waste Is Lost

Men tell tales. Dead men tell more.
Should we save all dead men’s tales?

In one, the wife of the sage
Pours a piss pot on his head,

But the sage stays calm and jokes.
The joke will be on the wives

In the days to come of men
Who will love to tell that joke.

In a lost tale, the same wife
Was said to want to eat well,

But the sage, who was quite tight
With coin, made a joke once more.

It’s good we don’t have that joke.
That it’s wives who tell the tales

And it’s the sage who is wise,
Is a tale men love to tell,

Which is why we are still plagued
With more tales than we can tell.

So a few of the tales die.
Men and sage wives die as well.


Almost All Early Literature

Had earlier origins,
Which had earlier themselves.
Fragile continuities

Of manuscripts left us hints
More tantalizing than wholes,
But the wholes had to exist

And before them the others,
And others before others.
Frankly, we were always whole

And always a little gone
On the way to becoming
Something else, but not like you,

Matter waltzing in the arms
Of your hot twin, energy.
When we become something else,

The else is really something,
Leaving us nothing at all—
Well, plerique omnes. Almost.


However, the Sense of the Word Remains Obscure

Where was the poem’s origin?
Why would a poem want to know?

Cupped in the uncertain hills,
Perhaps of North Africa,

Perhaps of Greece, or why not
Also China, which also

Suffered occasional loss
Of libraries of ancients,

Not enough to lose the thread
Of continuous culture

Despite the grave disruptions,
But enough that there’s a veil

Behind the medieval world
Beyond which poetry blurs

Like the mountains where signs hid
Under centuries of mist.

There were civilizations
So much older than any

Of this, and most without texts,
And only architecture

And elaborate design
Persist to bear them witness.

Words lost for two thousand years
Were already hunting down

Ancestral words lost to them.
We should expect this began

Before beginnings of texts,
This search or something like it,

Torches and lamps back of caves,
Cupsones, in the mountains,

Carvings, swirls of ochre paint.
As soon as a word for birth

Was born, the search for places
Of birth emerged, forever

Frustrating language haunted
By its original myth.


Derivative Deathlessness

Of all forms of immortality,
The only one more than fantasy
Is the dream of living on in fame,
Memory, cultural legacy,
Achievements that are still only stays,
Sand dunes heaped against the winds of change.

Such names! Publius Nigidius,
Naevius, Favorinus float off,
The last grains of whole lives lived and lost.
Names are no more concerned to stay put
And stay whole than silica atoms,
Proper nouns no more than the common.

Publius Nigidius the man
Would probably have loved to have known
The derivation of lox is lox,
More or less unchanged thousands of years,
In pronunciation and meaning,
Already by the time he was born

And named himself. Something enduring
Reminds us there was once a person,
Name of Publius Nigidius,
And that he was fond of deriving
The meanings of words. Words tell us this
And nothing more about Publius.


From the Books of Heraclides of Pontus

Now, you’ve seen loss
Haunt the green sedge
Of marsh names cross.
Now, you’re the bridge.

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