Launching The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems tomorrow! Today I offer you the tiniest poem in the book, from No Need of Sympathy (BOA 2013). I want to thank BOA for giving permission for me to use 20 poems from a collection that hadn’t been out all that long. That can cut into their sales, so I urge you to have a look at that book, also.
This poem was one of a series of short poems I wrote in response to sculptures by the artist Bill Allen. The poems and pieces were part of an exhibit at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City. I wanted short poems so a person could stand there and read them on the wall.
Worms can replace parts.
They can re-start themselves
if they’re cut apart. And
the slime they leave behind
glues the earth together.
They have no eyes.
Imagine scrunching alone
through life, armless,
legless, and blind
yet so convinced
of your usefulness that it
makes some kind of sense.
Oh, all right. I’ll give you two for the price of one. This is also from No Need of Sympathy. The PBS News Hour used to—before they gave up with the sheer numbers—have a period of silence at the end of the show when they put on screen the name and photo of each person killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. I wrote this after watching that became almost more than I could bear. I think of the great World War I poets, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon. “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is a poem by Owen. I think of the young recruit, just wanting to get out of his small town. He’s so young, it seems as if he’s playing dress-up, going off to war.
Night after night the photos of dead soldiers
go by on the News Hour like playing-cards while we drink
our wine, though we stop for that length of time, of course,
out of reverence, but it’s not enough. The well of
how-not-enough-it-is is bottomless, deeper than TV. Even
if you track back through the Comcast cable, back to
the electrical impulses, you’re not even close to what to do.
Not even if you end up on Main Street in Salisaw, Oklahoma,
and follow the 19-year-old into the storefront full of
uniforms, crisp, medallioned, follow not his vanity
but his hope, his longing for order, for the squared shoulders
of order, his wish for the vast plains of the world
to unroll at eye-level, so he can walk out into the particulars,
the screaming, the blood. Owen, Brooke, Sassoon: what
anthem for the doomed youth this time? His death rests
like a quarter in the pocket, a sure thing. Its arrival
is a few missing lines I fill in, wrongly, because
the mind does that: I have him watching in slow motion,
with love and pity, the flowers beginning to bloom
on his shirt, the sky closing like a book. Sadly, then,
he disappears entirely into my mind, his last breath
easing between my words. There was a book in his childhood.
No, mine. Ducks cross the road, a mother duck leads them
through traffic to the pond. The pages flip so that
the ducks seem to move. They slide into the pond
with the satisfaction of making it through the human
confusion. Our soldier floats like a duck. Like a night-flight
casket. In the photo his eyes, straight-forward, being all
they can be, float on the surface of a pool of uncatalogued
genetic material. One snapshot in time, his eyes were
like that, his mouth. He can’t remember. He never was
like that. He was playing dress-up, then, hoping to make it true,
and did, so true no one could get in a word, in protest.