The HyperTexts

Bob Zisk

Bob Zisk describes his development as a poet as follows: Once I had thoughts (bordering on plans) to become a medievalist. However, I abandoned Grimm's Law, fracturing, and their exotic comrades for some travel, a brief stint in cartography, and finally work with community-based organizations involved in neighborhood housing issues. I eventually did a few years as director of technical services for the NYC Division of Homeless Housing Development (RIP). During that time I wrote and conducted seminars for the NYC Public Development Corporation and taught intermittently for Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. In those years I wrote some poetry and short stories. I found that writing proposals and impact assessments under insane deadlines and abominable working conditions stimulated my dalliances with my muse. However, she was not a good girl, and most of my output was trash. Lately age and the adjustments to it have entered my verse. As a kid I wrote in meter and rhyme. In college and for a time afterwards I wrote in a rhythmic free verse or in four-beat accentual lines. I also penned a few alliterative poems, then gradually drifted into accentual syllabics, where I seem to have taken up an extended residence. I remember that during a Horace seminar we had read Milton's unrhymed translation of the Pyrrha Ode (1.5). I was struck by its modernity. I also read the unrhymed verse in Campion's treatise, and Coleridge's "conversation poems," from all of which stuff like "K. P. Lynch" are descended—at least in my mind's eye.

 
 
Inscription for the Empty Pedestal of a Statue of Don Juan de Oñate at Alcalde, New Mexico

They had to call the celebrations off
Because four centuries are not enough
To scrub the memory
Of all those screams and vengeful curses
Hurled from where the ancient city perches
High on its promontory.

Among moist silage of loss the ancestors live.
Would your benignity have kept them alive?
Some scholars speculate
That there, not far from El Morro's sandstone face,
Perhaps in a flood of enduring grace,
You chopped toes, but not feet.

God knows, good slaves need both their feet
To slave and toil out here in the desert heat.
Priests promised paradise
— The usual sugared lies —
And hope, and momentary respite there,
Where brown-robed friars made hay out of their despair.

But the descendants tell a murkier tale,
Of murder, rape, and maimed
Young men who once had dreamed
Of marriage and harvests that would never fail.

Your scapegoats were aged twenty-five or more
No longer would they tread
Those cinctures of arid streambed
That crisscross our desert floor.

Their sisters were uprooted from their homes,
Exiled to rich estates
And strange novitiates
Where starched nuns sheared their hair and veiled their wombs.

At Acoma you left eight hundred dead
When you let loose a fiery cannonade.
You pillaged as men screamed and women cried.
You hacked off bare feet while bald Franciscans prayed.
So now the wheel has made another turn.
And circling fortune unfolds a newer scene.

At Alcalde your bronze stood tall, Don Juan,
With you on your great warhorse. But fate had
Turned against you in the morning sun:
By starlight your right foot had been amputated,
A slight installment toward settling the score
Against Oñate the grand Conquistador.

——————

Author's Notes:

Inscription for the Empty Pedestal of a Statue of Don Juan de Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico: Don Juan de Oñate, a controversial figure in New Mexico history, had been honored in the 1980s with a bronze statue of him on a horse.

They had to call the celebration off: In 2020 the statue of Don Juan was removed for fear of vandalism.

Among moist silage of loss the ancestors live.
Would your benignity have kept them alive?
Some scholars speculate
That there, not far from El Morro's sandstone face,
Perhaps in a flood of enduring grace,
You chopped toes, but not feet.

God knows, good slaves need both their feet
To slave and toil out here in the desert heat...: The Acoma people raised corn and other crops for personal consumption and trade. Some Oñate supporters, have suggested that he might not have cut off the feet of men twenty-five and over, only their toes so they would still be able to do forced labor. His diary says he cut off las puntas del pie, the tips of the feet, i.e., the toes. Acoma oral history disagrees with this. El Morro, also known as Inscription Rock, is a large sandstone formation at an oasis not far from Acoma. The rock contains pre-Columbian pictographs and numerous inscriptions, including one in a fine engraving hand left by a soldier in the U.S. Camel Corp.

Oñate, according to the Acoma oral account, singled men twenty-five and older for maiming. Survivors twelve and older were sentenced to twenty years of slavery. The Acoma account attributes the start of hostilities to shameful advances toward the Acoma women.

Besides the mutilation Don Juan imposed twenty years of slavery on many able-bodied men and women, and sent young girls off to labor on large estates or to be raised in convents. Curiously mistreatment of indigenous populations, including enslavement, violated Spanish Crown decrees and Roman Catholic policy, but enforcement was sketchy. However, Don Juan de Oñate suffered the ignominy of being recalled to answer for his cruelties.

At Acoma you left eight hundred dead...: Oñate's soldiers rolled a cannon through the Acoma streets, blasting walls and homes. At the north end of the city there are still structures that bear the marks of this assault and subsequent burning. Five hundred men were killed, three hundred women and children, an instance of total war in America about two hundred seventy years before Sherman espoused the doctrine. As a medieval inquisitor might have phrased it, there were no innocents.

The year of the Acoma Massacre was 1598.

By starlight your right foot had been amputated: This occurred at night on December 29, 1997 (New York Times, December 30, 2017), marking the four hundredth anniversary of Oñate's atrocities. Restoration of the statue cost $10,000.00. Since its removal in 2020 Don Juan has been put in temporary storage.

Acoma, high on a New Mexico mesa, is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. It dates from around 1100 C.E., but the Acoma people, in their oral histories, record two thousand years of residency in the area. Their language is Western Keresan, and the people have a rich tradition of art and oral tradition.

Disclaimer: The author, Bob Zisk, is wholly responsible for the content of this poem.



The Blades of Atropos

I

Have I diminished since that afternoon
When, green as cactus flesh, I watched the sun,
Swollen with red fire in the dying day,
Sink down below a burnished hem of sky?

There were dry, broken seashells underfoot,
And fish hook cacti, which clung by bare root
To a vast, arid desolation of split stone,
Stood like green cysts in troughs sucked dry of rain.

There, at the edge of time’s Gethsemani,
Coyotes yelped and buzzards scanned the dry
Desert floor, and as I breathed in the scent
Of pungent chaparral, my heart sagged, bent
Between the basalt of philosophy
And a deep wirfelmere of melancholy.
 
Ubiquitous winds, seductive, moved dry air,
Crying out from a wasteland of nowhere.
I was a listener, but wasn’t lashed
To any spar. Love-desperate wailing washed
My ears with siren pleas for empathy,
Then died off at sunset’s last blood soaked ray.

II

The trumpets of the womb, unmuted, shrieked
A brief deguello, and the walls were breached:
Beyond the desert, in a city of men,
Curette and suction scraped an Orphic stain
From its dark sack, and that smashed egg of time,
Red-bagged, was tossed out from the sheet-rocked room.

As twilight spread across the dry seabed,
The clamps and blades were cleansed of slime and blood.
The end of the beginning was a casual
Affair. It was all done before night fell:
The air grew dark, particulars were entered
Into a ledger, and some payment tendered.

III

Under the white light of the rising moon,
In the dark rocks, I heard a cougar whine —
Big cats, if they should lose a cub, are said
To lick its body tenderly, then feed
On the soft kitten’s flesh, until in death
It changes into the dark clot of birth.

Somewhere, in dens outside the cemeteries
Of crimson plastic, beyond the range of Furies
And moral goads, there is milk, there is blood,
And ancient instinct seldom is denied.

 IV

I might have gone to gather tears from Styx,
Or purple foam from Acheron’s black rocks,
But death cuts a long channel, where I, with shades
That wander voiceless through riparian reeds,
Paused at twin stands of poplars, the one black,
The other white. There, in that grove, the rock
Of time yields two fresh pools, tranquil, affective,
Of pain, loss, memory and joy, reflective
Of coming, going, of long metamorphoses
That split, and gurgle their swift, separate ways
Through leafy ruts and stone lined chalices.
There I stood, at the threshold of moist desires,
Fecund memory, dry regretfulness,
And I bathed in a mneme of acrid loss.

V

Your soul was not a captive bird. Untamed,
It did not linger in the tray, but climbed
Skyward on thermals of fresh attar-gul.
Sipping sweet drops from the sun’s golden bowl,
You passed through the black gates of Taenarus,
And, like stardust, fell over Cocytus.

VI

Have I diminished since that afternoon
When, green as cactus flesh, I watched the sun,
Swollen with red fire in the dying day,
Sink down below a burnished hem of sky?
My question answered: no, I am not less,
But I am heavy with long ears of loss,
And am more arid than the yellow grass,
Darker than locusts of forgetfulness.

VII

Deer mice scratch at my door. How they grow bold!
Crickets sing for me. Fall air is cold.
I sit alone in the black cave of night,
And long, dark hours will pass before first light.

VIII

My recollections are an oubliette,
Where, forgotten, I never may forget.
I listen to the music of my breath,
And all remembrance seems an oblite death.
Yet, as the ash leaves fall, golden and red,
I live, more than I was, but less than god,
So that I end this song, and to that soul,
My long, sad doubt, I say: “Be still. Farewell.”

————————————————

The setting of this poem is one of recollection and regeneration. On that stage are scenes in an outpatient facility in the Bay area, the desert landscape of Arizona's Superstition Mountains, the Underworld Kingdom of the soul or unconscious mind, and a dark room in a house in Northern New Mexico. Time and sequence are those of a dream, and movement and resolution are interior.

The meter is rhymed iambic pentameter, with frequent use of slant rhymes. The stanza structure throughout the poem varies in length..

The Blades of Atropos: Atropos was one of the Three Sisters, The Fates. Her task was to cut the thread of life received from the other two.

There were dry, broken seashells underfoot...: These shells were part of the record of a great, vanished inland sea.

And a deep wirfelmere of melancholy...: Wirfelmere is a very old word for an eddy or a whirlpool.

Ubiquitous winds, seductive, moved dry air,
Crying out from a wasteland of nowhere.
I was a listener, but wasn’t lashed
To any spar...: The reference is to Odysseus and the Sirens. There are many legends about the hallucinatory properties of winds blowing through those canyons.

The trumpets of the womb, unmuted, shrieked
A brief deguello, and the walls were breached: The part of the female genitalia containing ovary and fallopian tube is called the salpinx, a Greek word meaning trumpet. In Spanish armies the deguello was the trumpet melody signaling no quarter to be given.

The end of the beginning was a casual
Affair. It was all done before night fell:
The air grew dark, particulars were entered
Into a ledger, and some payment tendered...: The reference is to the valorization of birth and death and everything between those two poles.

Somewhere, in dens outside the cemeteries
Of crimson plastic: A repetition of the image of the red bag used for disposal of medical waste.

...In the dark rocks, I heard a cougar whine...: One rarely sees mountain lions, but they see, hear and smell us. The cry of the American lion is an eerie whining sound, unlike the roar of the African lion. Every evening we hobbled Hancho and George, our burros, so that they would stick close to camp and not become dinner for a big cat.

I might have gone to gather tears from Styx,
Or purple foam from Acheron’s black rocks...: The purple foam is the frothy drool of Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades. According to the tale the beautiful purple flowering plant, aconite, a highly toxic favorite of assassins and physicians, germinated out of the drool of Cerberus. The following scene owes a lot to classical geographies of the Underworld, especially as described by Vergil.

Your soul was not a captive bird. Untamed,
It did not linger in the tray, but climbed
Skyward on thermals of fresh attar-gul...: I can't remember where I got the detail of the soul and the captive bird. I think it is from a description somewhere in Plutarch of the death of a little girl. Attar-gul is the legendary essential oil of fragrant roses.

...two fresh pools, tranquil, affective...: One pool was water of knowledge, the other of forgetfulness. The belief was that a drink from one resulted in forgetfulness, oblivion, an unknowing sleep or stupor. The other was the water of knowledge and awareness. In one tradition this water was preparatory to a shade's reincarnation, an option not open to those who drank of forgetfulness. After five cycles of birth and death the dead person could enter Elysium.

You passed through the black gates of Taenarus...: the promontory of Taenarus contained one of the mythical entrances to the Underworld. Cocytus, in the next line, is one of the rivers of Hades. It is usually stressed, as in Latin, on the second syllable. However, here I revert to the Greek form, which has an acute accent on the last syllable (κωκυτός, literally a wailing).

My long, sad doubt, I say: “Be still. Farewell.”: the existential situation of the poem is protracted doubt, and it ends with a reaffirmation of that doubt, an acceptance, which, in the absence of certainty, turns out to be the only resolution the poem offers.



May 2, 1960

"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."—Gandhi

Twelve years had passed. The world was waiting, some
Eagerly, others somewhat tentatively—
California is beautiful
In May. But I was in New York. No drum
Rolled to signal the event when he
Was walked down a stretch of barren hall
To where the chosen guests might better see
His part in that unholy spectacle.
He knew his role, and theirs. It wasn't Rome.
But all the witnesses would get their fill
When the pellets dropped into the pail.

They say a secretary botched the call:
A number entered wrong, a late redial.
Too bad. But as we say, shit happens. Time
Had run its course, but the State would not fail.
You were already in your chair, and they
Were seated when the almond kernels fell
Down to a cistern of mortality
From which thin vapors snaked in a harsh plume.
Fragile threads of fate's savage chemical,
Sad miserere of mutability,
Enveloped the spoiled fruit of a dead womb.

The clock struck one. Sunlight flooded the room.
I stood up. A few boys joined in with me.
Mister Rood stood there for a quiet while
In that New York classroom. He spoke my name
And asked me why. I said that on this day,
At this very moment, we would kill
Chessman according to the State's decree.
And we, the citizens, were murder's shill.
Mr. Rood crossed himself. As in a dream,
He asked if we would say a prayer with him.

The State was quick in casting the first stone
At Caryl Chessman, who had killed no one.
They say that Caryl shook his head in pain
As the Elders hurled their first stone.
Now we, their brethren, wear the mark of Cain.

AUTHOR NOTES

At the time described in this poem I was fourteen years old, and I was deeply moved by the execution of Caryl Chessman in the California gas chamber. Chessman, who had a long rap sheet of petty crimes, had been convicted of kidnapping and rape, but he had not committed murder. To the end he protested his innocence. I cannot speak to his guilt or innocence, only to his execution. For twelve years, acting as his own lawyer, he had forestalled his execution, but at 10:00 a.m. Pacific time, 1:00 p.m. Eastern time, his luck ran out, and he met death in the gas chamber, as he said he would, without what he had called animal fear. Caryl Chessman was the first and only person executed for a kidnapping that didn't end in murder. For the rest of my life I have remained an opponent of capital punishment and have written proposals for prison reform and rehabilitation, and polemics against the death penalty. I have never believed in taking life to assuage grief or to avenge the victim. I hope my poem conveys a little of the human tragedy of this death, something beyond the merely political.

Twelve years had passed. The world was waiting, some
Eagerly, others somewhat tentatively...: The Chessman case was deeply divisive. Many thought his death long overdue, while others petitioned on his behalf for clemency.

When the pellets dropped into the pail...: The mechanism of execution was for pellets of cyanide to be dropped into a reservoir of sulfuric acid, causing a chemical reaction that resulted in the release of hydrogen cyanide gas.

They say a secretary botched the call:
A number entered wrong, a late redial...: A last-minute stay had been granted, but the wrong number was dialed on the rotary phone, and when the prison received the stay, the execution was already in progress.

The clock struck one. Sunlight flooded the room.
I stood up. A few boys joined in with me...: 1:00 EST was the scheduled time of execution. A few of us students had agreed to stand up in a quiet protest of the execution. Some others would have, but for fear of punishment. The rest just watched and awaited the outcome.

Mister Rood stood there for a quiet while...: Dan Rood, our science teacher, was an old Roman Catholic father of nine. How he ever survived on a Catholic school salary I'll never know. He was kind and gentle. His name, Rood, was wholly appropriate for him. After sixty-one years I would not want to besmirch his memory. If I remember correctly, Rood's justice required that I, as the ringleader, translate the Preamble to the Constitution into Latin.

I said that on this day,
At this very moment, we would kill
Chessman according to the State's decree...: The naïveté of this declaration, the black and white simplicity, although it may offend more critical sensibilities, is the event viewed through the filter of a fourteen-year-old boy.

They say that Caryl shook his head in pain...: Chessman supposedly had said he would nod his head if he felt pain. He shook his head several times as some froth ran from his mouth, then he bent over at the waist, convulsed briefly, and the color drained from his complexion.

Now we, their brethren, wear the mark of Cain...: The biblical god scarred Cain with the mark of a murderer, but it was also an admonition against taking Cain's life, an exhortation to which little attention is paid by his and Adam's descendants.

On a personal note, I had always been a rebellious child, but the execution of Chessman marked a change for me: a willingness to stand alone as a man against the world and to say that it was wrong and that I knew better than my mentors and elders.

A Formal Note:

This poem consists of two eleven-line stanzas, a ten-line stanza, and a five-line tornada. The three stanzas are built on three rhymes/half rhymes and the tornada on two. The meter is a not-too-conservative but not-too-free iambic pentameter. My intent was to create an unadorned, straightforward narrative that would be declarative rather than musical. The tornada provides a comment on the first three stanzas, but without a strong closure. The poem is left unresolved, reflecting the lack of resolution which our society has promulgated on the question of execution. I concluded the poem after the Federal Government conducted two more executions.

An Account by an Unidentified Witness:

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead. (ExecutedToday.com >> 2010 >> May >> 02)



Memories of Holy Ghost

Sitting here at the edge of Holy Ghost
I ache for all whom I have known and lost—
Lovers, friends, dogs who've flopped across my knees:
Lovely as sunlight on lean aspen trees,
They have warmed me, they have nourished me,
Washed me in the green leaf of memory,
So that now, on the rocks of Holy Ghost,
I sit awhile with them whom I had lost.

Originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Undiscovered Poets



Epicedium

There was a cup. Its rim was grass and twigs,
And in it were three tiny turquoise eggs.
Their mother was the soft-voiced hermit thrush,
And she was off somewhere in the thick brush.

After two days, at first light, I went back,
And found that little nest a shapeless wreck.
The twigs were scattered, and on a bent stalk
I saw some shell and a speck of golden yolk.

A thin, sharp rain began to fall, and soon
The tussled grass and sticks were all washed clean.
The gray air shone with a gold light, and birth
And death gestated in unmoving earth.



Sweet Old Fruit of Orient

My pretty peach, together we've grown old:
Your bark is peeling. Wind and rain and weight
Of snow and ice have bent your boughs, and cold
And heat have left you in a frazzled state.

Yet you, my Persian apple, cover me
With shade and scent, and the moist juice and sap
From the dark umbra of your canopy
Speckle my shirt, stain the gloves in my lap.

I too am broken wood in time's fierce sack,
And all Spring's hue is faded from my hairs.
Death's weevils, small, voracious, chew my back,
And I am withered leaf among the tares.

My skin, like yours, is loose, and my limbs bend
And twist. These wounds are deep. They will not mend.



Tithonus

This wine is strong,
And I am no longer young.

Pink girls with honeyed thighs
Cannot revitalize
My presbyopic eyes.

Yes, I am not wise,
But I know that beauty dies.
Listen: a coyote cries.
Falling snow tickles the trees.
Cicadas chirp in my knees.



Hora Novissima

My body aches, my belly churns,
And yet my heart’s longing suborns

This witness of leaking collagen
And this dry creak of bone on bone.

My neck sounds like an old washboard.
My knees rattle like a dry gourd.

All my bones say, “You are old,”
But I deny what I am told,

For it was only yesterday
That we kissed in the rose-scented May,

And, washed by the sun’s brilliant gold,
Thought lips and tongue would never grow cold.



K. P. Lynch

Last night I had a bearded visitor
Who came to me on wings of sleep. He passed
Through the arched Gate of Horn, and spoke to me
Of farewells and the final rites of death.
His heart was weighed against a feather's burden,
And on that scale heart proved as light as justice;
Yet when I tried to query him, he rose
Up and vanished on a shapeless wind,
And currents in the river of our death
Cleansed the whispering channels of our loss.
Hail and farewell, brother. Hail and farewell.

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