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.

Song in the Falling Snow of Late January

Out of red Arcturus the soft winds blow,
Kissing supple boughs and feathery snow.
In the stillness of rime's lullaby,
Trees whiten under a magenta sky,
And bright, untrodden flakes, blown down the slopes,
Blanket the fields and all our dormant hopes.
This snow is splendid, pure, unstained by blood,
Unscarred by smithereens of blown up wood.

Out of red Arcturus the soft winds blow,
Kissing supple boughs and feathery snow.
Here, in the antechamber of dreams borne
From the arch of the burnished Gate of Horn,
Analgesic calm snakes around my arms
And legs, and the cool snow gathers and swarms
Through my tussled hair, cakes on my lips,
And sends a numbness through my spine and hips.

Out of red Arcturus the soft winds blow,
Kissing supple boughs and feathery snow.
The moon is hidden by this snowy veil,
And, as night wears on, owls moan, and cats wail,
And on the starless crystals, cold and white,
Are heard the  prancing horses of the night.
For one frozen moment in frosty time,
There is peace, and a silver shroud of rhyme.

Published in The Lyric (Winter, 2023)

Death in the Autumn of the Year: Remembering a Gentle Soul on Memorial Day

(For Roger LaPorte, who died in front of the U.N., Nov. 9, 1965)

Peace, kindly spirited, daughter of Justice,
You who, holding the highest keys of counsels
And of wars, make the nations great, accept
This song, this little praise for one who, had
He not died, surely would have been destroyed:
Roger, on this day of recollection
No one remembered you. The songs we heard
Were sung for boys who didn’t throw their shields
Away, those very shields that wouldn’t stay
The rage of Ares. Dulce et decorum est…?
It was crazy: the young dying in one
Another’s arms, the old sending them off
To distant woods and sinkholes of thick blood.
One day, long since the last bloodroot had dried
On its frail stem, you sat down on the great
Navel of nations, the soft, incense-rich
Omphalos of murdered humanity.
There in the moist Autumn stillness you soaked
Yourself with gasoline, and like a feathered
Icarus falling or the bright, hot son
Of the summer sun, you scorched away the daylight
And sealed yourself in the black egg of death.
Your young flesh seared away the promises
Of summer, the green hopes of flowering stalks
And swollen clouds. The gods hurled no arrows
Down on us, unleashed no new pestilence:
From you they took hot smoke and bitter char.
Among the whispering Eumenides
They plaited pungent crowns of celery
To honor your brave, fragile threads of smoke.
And yet for you there were no woven wreaths
Of violets, no scented flowers of songs
Gathered after Spring showers or Summer rains.
For you August and the bright, low-hanging moon
Of next Summer became impossibilities.
A coin was placed between your dry, scorched lips,
And your brief ekpyrosis disappeared
From our consciousness. And you were no more.


Roger LaPorte was a member of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker. He took his profession of that organization's ideals very seriously, and chose to fulfill Tertullian's prophetic words: "We are made more numerous, for as often as we are cut down by you, the blood of martyrs is our seed."

This poem was written close to Memorial Day, when we lionize our war dead but maintain a long silence about our heroes who struggled for peace.

There is a small irony in the opening lines of the poem. They are translated from Pindar's Pythian 8, a victory song for Aristomenes of Aigina, who won the crown for wrestling in 446 B.C.E. In combat sports at the Greek festivals lethal force was not permitted. If a competitor was killed the crown was given to him. The detail of the discarded shields is derived from Spartan legend and from a fragment by Archilochus which favors the philosophy of getting away so that one may live to fight another day. As my poem progresses there are echoes of Pindar, and hints of Homer and Aeschylus.

A coin was placed between your dry, scorched lips, And your brief ekpyrosis disappeared: the coin is the Ferryman's fee for passage across the River of Death. Ekpyrosis: the Stoic philosophers believed in great cycles of ages that regularly ended in a conflagration, out of which the new cycle would begin. Pronunciation: Ekpyrosis (/ˌɛkpɪˈroʊsɪs/ (Wikipedia, Ekpyrosis)

They plaited pungent crowns of celery: celery and parsley were plants of death, of the Underworld. A celery crown was a reminder that fame and glory must pass.

Confusion of Equinox and Solstice

At daybreak the pale grass stands crowned with frost,
And blood-red leaves are inlaid underfoot.
Pied gentleness of butterflies is lost.
Old stems are withered on the clinging root.

Broad, windward trunks of scarred elms, white with crust,
And stalks of Aaron's rod, crisp with brown leaves,
Are old, erect, mottled — pocked with fine dust
Blown on errant puffs of a wandering breeze.

Autumn yields to Winter's sudden blast,
And, on the razor rims of granite blades,
Thin, needled snow is swallowed by the last
Gray mists rising from low-lying glades,

Where, under storms of graceful, falling leaf
This Autumn passes, scarlet, golden, brief.


Confusion of Equinox and Solstice: perhaps the different stanzaic landscapes evoke a little of that confusion brought about at the overlapping of seasons. That contiguity of season and time is also actuated by the differing climatic effects of varying altitude and exposure. In this case the vision is amplified through a cloud of brain fog.

And stalks of Aaron's rod: Aaron's rod is a widely-distributed plant known by many names. The name Aaron's rod is derived from Biblical accounts of the magic staff that bloomed and on another occasion swallowed the serpents of the Egyptian priests' staffs. It is a tall plant with a rosette of leaves and a long central group of flowers arranged in a spike. In the American West, because of its large leaves, it has been known as Cowboy Toilet Paper. A common name is mullein, from the French mou or molle. In the Old World it was also known as Mary's Blanket.

Numbers 17:8, King James Version: And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.

Scales of Autumn: First Snow

I am in my seventy-seventh year,
And over my shoulder dark corbies are all I hear:
Their coarse caws fill the chamber of my ear.

Around me Summer's blossoms wither and fold
Their petals in the breath of Autumn's nibbling cold,
And creaking boughs shed leaves of garnet and gold.

Under this vault of sky, our world grows slow:
Streams congeal until they cease to flow,
And solitary winds whistle and blow

Through a necropolis of whispering pine,
And silver aspens, leafstripped and ghostly, shine
As the forest sinks into this year's decline.

Yes, it is my seventy-seventh year,
And over my shoulder black corbies are all I hear
In the procession of this dying year.

Redstone Creek Revisited

Redstone, that old rusty creek,
Made its gurgling way through Smock.
It was a broad, polluted stream
We would bridge when we took a walk.

I never touched its water. It
Was full of waste from mills and mines,
But as the light danced over it
Devil's arrows would flutter and flit
Along the banks. Unknowing wrens
And ruddy, banded chipmunks would lap
Red ripples bright with carcinogens,
And crested woodpeckers would bore and tap
Through bark, bare wood and sticky sap.

After dear Aunt Mary died
We laid her beside old Uncle Joe.
Little creatures still stirred  by the side
Of Redstone's red, polluted glow.

Lenny and I stood at its edge.
We spoke. Our voices seemed old and weak.
We perched on an old gray ledge.
There were few words for us to speak:
One last goodbye to our Aunt Mary
From the banks of Redstone Creek,
Where rusty waters rocked
death's ferry.


Devil's Arrows: dragonflies, darning needles.

Lenny and I: we were first cousins meeting here in middle age. He was a huge man, built like a football lineman. He was younger and much bigger than me. A few years ago I learned that he too had crossed Styx.

The Wrestler, Milo of Croton in Grecian Woods

Milo was walking through the shadowy woods.
Broken beams of late afternoon sunlight
Pierced the leafy canopy, and deer,
Spooked by the sound of his footsteps, took off
As he approached their dense, clandestine coverts.
But home, not venison, held Milo's heart.
Yet an ancient olive trunk, split, wedged,
Gaping in a long, moist wound exposing
Fragrant heartwood still green and tightly grained,
Caught his eye and set his limbs a-trembling.
The wedges, rusted, glinted in bright sparks
Of metal shining through a clot of blood-
Red rust that formed in some lost yesteryear
Of solitary, peirastic summoning,
A call that Milo, crowned with victory,
Could not fail to heed, could not refuse.
Milo walked over to the wounded olive,
Inspected the long cut, and flexed his muscles.
Above him a thick swarm of honeybees
Made a wheel with their queen  at the dark center.
The air was permeated by the thick
Perfume of their gold pollen, and the music
Of their low bass caressed the murmuring
Branches and the whispering leaf clusters.
Milo turned his palms outward, gripped the sides
Of the bright gash, and drew a long, deep breath.
His arms and shoulders strained. The old wood groaned.
The veins of his forehead swelled with thick blood.
The wedges quivered, dropped as the cut widened,
Then slammed hard onto Milo's straining hands,
And held him fast in an unyielding vise.
He pushed against the wounded wood and tried
To break his adversary's mighty grip.
The day wore on. The tree sucked up his strength,
And as twilight enveloped him, he saw
Bright eyes in the blue dark, and heard low gurgling
Carried on advancing waves of darkness.
The air grew turbulent with angry raindrops,
And the wolves moved toward him. He smelled their mouths
And strained in the bone crushing grip of old,
Unyielding wood. A wolf lurched. Milo kicked
And broke its neck. Another closed its jaws
Around his shoulder. Milo shook. Sharp drops
Of rain began to pelt them. The black heavens
Let out a roar. The other wolves moved in
For the kill. Ozone filled the air. The olive
Exploded in a fiery crash, and man,
Wolves and twisted olive wood were seared
By the swift fire that fell from Heaven's hand.
The raindrops drizzled lightly and the scene
Cooled overnight. Shortly after dawn,
When the pink light of daybreak lit the woods,
Some shepherds came upon the scene. At first
Fear froze them in their tracks, but soon they moved
The wolves aside, and worked at prying loose
The corpse of Milo, whom they recognized,
And who they knew was chosen by Lord Zeus.
They gathered stones and built a simple cairn
Where the god's holy fire had scorched the earth,
And they took Milo to be burned to ash.
The olive tree, sacred to the god,
Had honored Milo seven times before
He died in its embrace. It bore young leaf
And tender fruit, and the bee swarm that witnessed
Milo's passion, made its home high up
In the tree's cleft, and gathered the soft pollen
From  long rebirths of fragrant olive blossoms.


Milo: except perhaps for Pherenikos, the great stallion of Hieron of Syracuse, Milo of Croton, a great wrestler, was the most celebrated athlete of ancient Greece. Pausanias tells us that he took the crown in six Olympic contests, while Simonides says that at Olympia Milo was victorious seven times, including once as a boy.

Yet an ancient olive trunk, split, wedged,
Gaping in a long, moist wound exposing
Fragrant heartwood still green and tightly grained,
Caught his eye and set his limbs a trembling.

The ancient accounts, to the best of my recollection, do not name the tree. Identifying it as an olive is my addition to the tale. At Olympia Milo was crowned seven times with olive wreaths sacred to Zeus. In my telling of the story Milo's attempt to overpower the sacred olive is an act of hubris.

The wedges quivered, dropped as the cut widened,
Then slammed hard onto Milo's straining hands,
And held him fast in an unyielding vise.

Milo of Croton was famous both for his long reign at the Greek athletic games, but also for his many feats of strength. It was a final demonstration of strength that brought his long career to an end. When he saw the old tree wedged open, he decided to tear it completely open. But the champion who had defeated so many opponents in his legendary grip, met his downfall in a hold he couldn't break.

And as twilight enveloped him, he saw
Bright eyes in the blue dark, and heard low gurgling
Carried on advancing waves of darkness.

There are two accounts of Milo's death. In one he is torn apart by wolves. In the other he is killed by a lion.

The corpse of Milo, whom they recognized,
And who they knew was chosen by Lord Zeus.
They gathered stones and built a simple cairn
Where the god's holy fire had scorched the earth,
And they took Milo to be burned to ash.

Among the ancient Greeks the site of a lightning strike became sacred ground, and victims of such events were considered to have been touched by the gods. Compare the opening lines of The Bacchae by Euripides. Small reliquaries or altars were erected at the scenes of lightning strikes. Cairns to honor great men are part of a tradition so old that it is attested in the Vedas.

A Butterfly and a Sparrow for William Soutar's Yellow Yorlins

Yellow Yorlins

Three yorlins flitter'd frae the elder tree;
Three glisterin yorlins gledsome on the e'e:
Pity the blind folk, what have never seen
The yellow yorlin, for they canna ken
Sae small a sicht is a' a man need hae
To keep his hert abune its misery.


Yellow Yorlins: yellow buntings, passerine birds of the Old World. At this point the New World buntings are not considered relatives of the Old World buntings.

flitter'd: fluttered

Frae: from

Glisterin: glittering, glimmering.

gledsome on the e'e: gladsome on the eye

Canna ken: cannot know. Seen in the previous line and ken are a rhyming pair.

Sae small a sicht is a' a man need hae: so small a sight is all a man need have...

Hert: heart

abune: above

The Death of a Sun King

My prince, I lifted you from the red brick,
Where you lay crippled by a careless kick.
Above a golden wave of columbine,
I set you down on the sweet flowered woodbine.
I watched your broken wings open and close
Until you died beside a dark-mouthed rose.
But now you dart through distant fields of white
Water hemlock and purple aconite:
There, where the sun neither rises nor sets,
You kiss the lips of sleepy violets.


The Death of a Sun King: The reference is to a monarch butterfly.

Water hemlock and purple aconite: These are plants of death, very toxic, dangerous to handle. Aconite is said to have sprung from the frothy drool of Cerberus, the fierce, three-headed dog of Hades. It has been used as an assassin's poison and a medicine. It is so toxic that it is claimed that touching it can produce a severe heart and respiratory reaction.

You kiss the lips of sleepy violets: Violets were reputed to be calming plants, good for headaches, anxiety, and emotional pain. They were said to promote sleep.

Passerine Passage

On the first day of summer, blue-rayed stars
Of sun-swept asters swayed above sweet tears
Of morning dew. You stretched rough little legs
Across the brilliant stone of a gray ledge.
Your creamy breast grew still, an empty thing
Bound in silences of a folded wing.
Black-capped choruses of chickadees
Piped their dirge from lofts of swaying trees.
Gold solstice wrapped you in a lingering light.
Your soft tail grew still, your feathery soul took flight.

Remembering the Early Rose

Dear Francie, there were roses in your face,
And the fine loft of down was on your breasts.
You drew me to the nest of your embrace,
Where I was soothed by girlish tenderness.

I have grown old, and yet my memory
Awakens the incense of your sweet heat,
And, in your blossoming femininity,
I nap to the strong thump of your heartbeat.

Except in the soft light of my mind's eye,
You have been absent from the fleeing years.
But I have heard the collared dove's soft cry,
And, in the gathering snow, hold back my tears,

Fresh tears: for dawn's first rose, Aunt Rose's daughter,
Whom cancer's punishers dragged to the slaughter.


Francie died young, consumed by bladder and bowel cancer. The last time I saw her, I was in the first days of puberty, and she was in the last days of her life.

Her features and her girlish gentleness as she carried me on my Aunt Mary's porch, are among my earliest memories. She breathed love into my little face.

Twilight Song of the Heart's Hunger

I sit here, by the cricket's singing stone,
And, in the embers of the setting sun,

My thighs grow warm, and burn without your hips
Joined to my lap. Bereft of your pink lips,

I sit here by the cricket's singing stone,
And ache as the ring-necked doves moan,

And gray, twilit cicadas shake the gloam,
As lady spiders stretch, and work the loom,

While I sit by the cricket's singing stone,
And tremble at a lorn owl's bitter tune.

È la solita storia: Remembering Bach Mai, Yemen, Ukraine and All the Faceless Dead

It was the end of Advent in seventy-two,
The Magi came in a B-52.

The cribs were wheeled into the basement, where
The sick and dying shook and prayed in fear.

The bombs, like rotten manna out of hell,
Gave scarcely any warning as they fell

Earthward, and filled the air with burning dead.
Their human smoke circled overhead.

Today we point and raise a weak outcry
As other little children scream and die,
All nameless as the babies of Bach Mai.


È la solita storia: it's the same old story.

On Dec. 22, 1972, in the so called Christmas Bombing the U.S. bombed Hanoi. No fewer than one hundred bombs struck Bach Mai Hospital, killing at least twenty-eight staff and an unspecified number of patients who had sheltered in the basement. In 1998 Bach Mai Hospital opened a special rehabilitation unit sponsored by Veterans for America. In 2000 Japan sponsored a reconstruction project at the hospital.

I was a young man at the time of the Christmas Bombing Operation. To this day I am amazed at those wise men at my university who could talk with such passion about categorical imperatives and Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, but could not find the humanity to speak out or sign a public letter decrying the bombing of Bach Mai Hospital. But I suppose it is a mark of progress that there are now courses in military ethics for the men and women we send to do the terrible, the unspeakable in our name.

Tiberius Abdes Pantera

Today the stone is still in place. The guards
Lament the paltry leavings of the cross,
And hope for better skies than yesterday.
Pilate should have listened to his wife,
And then they'd have been sloshing down good garum
With flagons of black market Caecuban —

The night is passing swiftly. It's approaching midnight,
And Caesar's legionaries once again
Have served the state, honored the emperor,
And worked up quite a thirst. It's time to get
Poor old Pantera. He had a soft spot
For the kid and his mother. He got him
Some school and always had some cloth and hot
Baubles for mom.
He saw it coming. They
Were sharks, hyenas full of politics from Hades.
He knew that they would force a crucifixion
Out of weak-livered Pilate. Everyone
Said he should have listened to his wife.
Too bad. Pantera will feel better soon
Enough: some wine and a stray piece of ass
Make a mighty medicine to cure
Almost anything. Even a wise-
Mouthed kid and his scared mother who was screaming
For him to do something, when there was nothing
To do except get drunk. Pilate, you dick!

While Pantera and his comrades drank
They wished the soul of Yeshu bon voyage,
A group of the boy's cronies rolled the stone
Away from the tomb's entrance, so that they
Could make away with the young savior's corpse.

Thus grew the stories of his harrowing
Of hell and his return to spread his last
Teachings from the teeming jaws of Hell's dark mouth.
As for Pantera's luck, his days in cursed Judaea
Would soon be a mixed wine of memories.

As his son's legend grew Pantera tried
His best to help poor Mary, but his son's
Watchful zealots put a wedge between
The parents, and he found himself shut out.

In time Pantera was notified
That he was being redeployed up north
To the harsh German borderlands where men
And women gleefully made war against
The Roman eagles. He cursed Mars and prayed
To Mithras that the bull's hot blood still marked
Him for life on both sides of River Styx.

On his departure day Pantera slipped
Mary a purse of silver, quietly
Admonishing that she not show the coin
To the James followers. In a soft whisper
He told her that at their son's crucifixion
He'd bribed the old centurion who stood
Under the cross to drug the boy with wine
Steeped in strong poppy juice that might have helped
The pain, but certainly would have
brought death a little
Sooner, — a soldier's mercy to dying comrades.
The veteran who stood the grim death watch
Promised Pantera that he would end
The scene with a quick misericordia
Sacralized as the Holy Spear of Longinus.

Pantera, when he took his leave, told Mary
That he was a short timer, and when he
Had finished up his forty year enlistment,
He would come back to her in Palestine.
He kissed her and said that it couldn't hurt
To have a new god in the family.

Pantera sailed to the Dalmatian coast,
Where they still spoke a decent kind of Latin,
Decent enough for a rough veteran
From Sidon. Germany was where he headed
To serve out his enlistment. Forty years
Was what they put on his austere gravestone.
He died in the sweet scented Rhineland Spring,
When the rich, clinging mats of wild strawberries bloomed
And a moist fever urged him into death,
Where he met his lady, Mary, and his son,
In a Judaea scented with live cedar,
And where the fragrant earth bloomed free of blood.


Tiberius Abdes Pantera: Pantera was a common name in the Roman Legions. It is a Latinization of a Greek word, and means Panther. Our Pantera is an amalgam. This is because, aside from several mentions of the name, along with a few scattered sentences, we know nothing of him. We can't even know if the mentions are of one or several Panterae. A soldier's grave .arker was found in Germany in 1859. The name on it was Tiberius Abdes Pantera, identified as a forty year veteran and a legionary sagittarius (archer) from Sidon. His service earned him a sodier's grave.

The Talmud mentions Mary as the mother of Yeshu Bar Pantera, with the suggestion that she was an adulteress and was not married to Pantera. We know of a similar mention of thus story from Celsus, whose account is recorded in Origen's Contra Celsum. Origen denies the account which is traceable at least to the second century. Beyond this Mary, Pantera, and Yeshu (Jesus) are mentioned in several medieval Jewish sources. In modern times the story is mentioned by Eliade in his A History of Religious Ideas.

My picture of Mary, Yeshu Bar Pantera, and Pantera himself is just one more footnote to the tale. Though many devout individuals may be put off by my story, several of those objectors would probably be unfamiliar with it without my poem. When I wrote the poem I tried to give a little humanity to the characters in the tale. My brief story is best compared with the syncretism found in the numerous and often contradictory stories of Greek myth.

weak-livered Pilate: the Romans ascribed to iecur, the liver, much of the function and psychological response vested by us in cor, the heart.

good garum: garum was a popular oily Roman fish paste that came in several grades of ascending price.

Caecuban: a very high quality Roman wine from Latium. These great vineyards of antiquity were destroyed by Nero in his search for the treasure of Dido. The wine was highly prized in ancient times and is celebrated in several places by Horace.

hot/Baubles: stolen and fenced.

Pilate, you dick: among the Romans terms of sexual abuse were frequent, e.g., uerpa, mentula, cunnus, the first two for dick and prick (interchangeable), the last for cunt.

harrowing of hell: this episode, as recorded in the Gospel of Nicodemus, was a commonly translated and read noncanonical text in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This Gospel, which was one of the first pieces of OE prose I ever read, remains one of my favorites, and I can still picture Christ liberating the souls of the just nonchristians.

men and women gleefully made war: Tacitus writes of the ferocity of German women. He tells us that they would fight beside their men. In the Germanic heroic literature we encounter Shield Maidens. We find women warriors in Saxo Grammaticus, King Heidrek's Saga,Volsunga Saga, The Nibelungenlied, etc.

the bull's hot blood: Mithras was a soldier's god. His cult flourished beside Christianity, and promised the initiate life after death. The Mithras Cult, an import from Mesopotamia, was essentially a mystery religion. The Taurobolium was one of the initiatory rites, not to be confused with the ritual of the same name in the rites of Magna Mater, which are not attested until about 160. In the Mithraic Taurobolium the initiate descended into a pit covered by perforated boards. A sacrificial bull stood on the wooden boards, and one of the designated priests of Mithras cut its throat and neck. The bull's blood would run over the boards and through the perforations onto the initiate in the pit.

James followers: in the early years of Christianity there were two camps. The oldest group was that of James and his adherents who seem to have believed that Christians had to become Jews through circumcision prior to baptism. However, the missionary zeal of Paul prevailed.

January 27, 2023: The Numb Heart

The architecture, drab, decays in silence,
Except for wind that shakes the teetering balance
Of Themis. Under onyx wings of ravens
Whose squawks protest indifference in the heavens,
God and Satan nod in disbelief,
And Furies muffle screams of useless grief.

Lines Attributed to Mary Stuart

En feinte mes amis changent leur bienveillance
tout le ben quils me font est desirer ma mort
et comme si mourant jestois en deffailance
dessus mes vestements ils ont jette le sort

My friends pretend to care, but wish instead
That they may yet be blessed to see me dead:
Weak as I was, I seemed caught in death's throes,
And they have rolled the dice to win my clothes.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: In my English rendering I have departed from Mary's cross-rhymed quatrain and have used instead rhyming couplets.


It's early Summer, and I can't forget
The bitterness that issues from regret—
Regret for this dark scar of memory,
For these sharp pangs of broken family.
Mother and father clawed their way through love's
Loss, and sank into the dark sore it leaves:
In death they found no closeness of the heart,
Only the wide gap of lying apart.
And here I am, their flesh, their broken son:
They are gone, and my time almost done.

Scrolling the Past

I knew a lady (once upon a time).
Her name is not important for this rhyme.
I'll not deny it: she was beautiful.
Her laughter was the wine dark sea in a shell.

Naked worms have leached supple boughs and leaves,
And dried the moist alburnum of our lives.
Her body, broken under surgeons' steel,
Spins through time fastened to a cosmic wheel.

There is no reason why, only the turn,
Inexorable, the unrelenting burn
Of a comburent wind that purges us,
Reduces us to spectral emptiness.

This is an old poem on an old question and dilemma: inexorabile fatum, as Vergil phrased it: the arbitrariness of suffering and death; the absence of providence; the merciless embrace of destiny with neither purpose nor respite.

Sweet Peaches in Old Age

This morning, by our aging picket fence,
I gather some ripe peaches in the shade
Of our sweet-smelling tree, where the blue-rayed
Powder of dawn bathes black-shelled worker ants

And soaks the shrinking lines of my bare hands,
As they move in and out of rattan braid
And weaves of dry rosettes and supple, beige
Osiers—pale, finely plaited withe wands.

There is a nearby ladder for high fruit,
But I avoid it, fearful of a fall
That would bring bruised, scraped flesh and
brittle pain

From the sandpaper soil at the tree's foot,
Where earwigs stretch and shedding lizards crawl
Through pockmarked puddles of last night's hard rain.

The Kiss of Last Year's Wind

Bitter the root from which the poppy grows,
And sharp the thorns that shroud the fragrant rose.
White is the surface of once pink cheekbones,
Velvet the moss which stains bone-white gravestones.

Pinelawn: At The Veterans' Cemetery

One morning, in a sun-pierced mist,
I stood beside my father's grave.
The pallid grass was closely clipped
On top of death's numbered cave.

The headstones stood erect and white.
A closer look revealed a glint,
A spark of stone that caught the light
Like steel against a piece of flint.

It was a quiet morning. Nearby
The dark earth covered Uncle Joe
And Uncle Leo. Alone they lie,
Exiled from warmth and the sun's glow.

There was a time I knew them all,
Before the soil weighed heavily
On them, and centipedes would crawl
Over their flesh into the day.

A lemon sun parted the mist
And it was time to bid them adieu:
To time and the living they are lost,
Untouched by light or morning dew.

Mare Nostrum

On a high cliff along the shore
I looked down on gray, crashing surf
Breaking against a jagged scar
Of land and creosote-smeared wharf.

Orphan boats were buffeted
By wind and the dark waves' assault.
Sharp flails of water thrashed my head
And cut my face with mist-soaked salt.

Numbed by slashing blades of cold,
With earlobes blood-red in the rain,
As the North Atlantic rolled,
I met my first hurricane.

Grizzled whitecaps twisted and roiled,
Thick with Leviathan's debris:
Lines and hooks swirled, embroiled
In the onslaught of unbridled sea.

The tide was an advancing pall
That dredged seabed and ragged shore.
Horseshoe crabs were launched and fell,
Broken on a rocky bar.

White sand and blue-black rocks were torn
Under the hammer of the gale
And in the fury of that storm
I watched might triumph, watched might fail.

Fifteen years had come and gone
For me. Beside me Father stood.
In that harsh wind could we have known
In nineteen years he'd be driftwood,

Detritus fixed in memory,
A log beyond the howling wind,
Not far from yet a further sea,
Bound fast under gravel and sand?

Stray Thoughts of Childhood Ghosts

I remember those red-brick coke ovens,
And the gray entrance to that old, flooded shaft.
Purple blackberries stuck to the dry, cloven
Firebrick, where chunky copperheads would lift
Their poison filled snake heads over prickly weeds,
Where red-rusted chipmunks scurried for seeds
And the dry winds rustled through pale hacksaw reeds.

I'd drag my feet through the sharp thistle stalks,
And below the broken ovens trample old canes.
I'd wipe thick blood from my fly bitten neck,
Then walk back to the abandoned mine,
Where I imagined I could hear the talk
Of black-dusted miners who once walked
This way, and died digging the coal-black rock.

Under the Old Oak

They said he was mean, they said he was bad.
They said he'd raped a fair young thing:
The hanging tree at Goliad
Was where they said he had to swing.

She'd hiked her dress and showed some thigh
As he repaired the broken tack.
She shook her butt and caught his eye.
He got caught with her flat on her back.

She began to scream and cry,
And as they kicked him till he bled,
She screamed out the fatal lie
That meant he'd hang until he was dead.

They said he was mean, they said he was bad.
They said he'd raped a fair young thing:
The hanging tree at Goliad
Was where they said he had to swing.

He was just a Mexican
Who sought out work as best he could.
It didn't help he had dark skin.
They strung him up from the old oak wood.

She'd hiked her dress and showed some thigh
As he repaired the broken tack.
She shook her butt and caught his eye.
He got caught with her flat on her back.

It was a good crowd that came
To watch him drop and swing footloose.
They ate their lunch and sang a hymn
As he kicked and jerked in the hemp noose.

They said he was mean, they said he was bad.
They said he'd raped a fair young thing:
The hanging tree at Goliad
Was where they said he had to swing.

The Scent of Carnations

I lost it on a rainy day,
When the sun shone through the fine showers.
Dark rust clung to the waterlogged clay
And stained the sweet gillyflowers.

I practiced it for a few weeks,
Until my hand stopped its shaking.
I practiced it until my teeth
Stopped the grinding and the aching.

I trained my hand till I stopped sweating.
My forehead veins throbbed a little,
My chest heaved from nervous breathing,
Dry cotton balls filled my spittle.

I lost it on a rainy day,
When the sun shone through the fine showers.
Dark rust clung to the waterlogged clay
And stained the soft poppy flowers.

I never saw the muzzle flash.
I scarcely felt the brain derail.
There was a quick, breaking crash,
I hardly felt the engines fail.

There was a momentary roar,
And now I'm here in this gray hearse.
I hear them slam the tailgate door.
It's nothing. I've known far worse.

I lost it one rainy day,
When the sun seeped through the fine showers.
Dark blood flooded the waterlogged clay.
It kissed the sweet gillyflowers.

Forbidden Knowledge

"That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure."
I've heard this said, but I am not so sure
Of it when I look back on innocence
Destroyed, discarded with indifference
To sullied beauty which was all too brief
And has turned from delight to bitter grief.

"That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure." Coleridge wrote this line in his poem, "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

Silence in the Crypt of Ideas

Generations of deathwatch beetles
Tap the hours away, and scatter frass
Across long planks of shelves and books
Unopened over years long-past, while scattered
Colonies of booklice and small bookworms move
In titters of near silence, through the wisdom
Of disintegrating tomes and shelves
Malodorous in the slow jaws of time.
Seated at my table I smell the scent
Of mildew on worn pages smeared with granules
And crust of larvae and small paper borers.
Sublimity and timeworn truths are chewed
Until the truth, mingled with the trite,
Succumbs to curlicues of tattered loss.
Chapters of antique fonts become small channels
In damaged paper, and the ages pass,
Digested, until they're changed to grains of frass.

Joseph Tusiani

Father Joseph, when we are gone, and night
Has covered us in purple cloth of Tyre,
When our clear lights are dead to stars and moon,
Perhaps someone attentive, maybe curious,
Will read your poems, and in one brief lyric,
Will wonder who that "Robert" might have been,
And what he did, or why he lived in meter,
As an artifact of a long dead tongue.
What a fine thing, I think, if such a lector,
Moved by words and whim, might search the stacks
Of dusty reading rooms and the dry threads
Of memory preserved in mute machines,
Until some words, some lines unique to me,
Take form out of spun cloth of renaissance,
And sing across the ocean of time past.

Joseph Tusiani was a scholar and poet who composed and published poems in four languages: English, Latin, Italian, and his native Gargano. He was 96 when he died on April 11, 2020.

In life many considered him the greatest living Neo-Latin poet. He and I were published together in the same journal of Neo-Latin poetry, which for me is an honor I scarcely deserved.

This little poem commemorates a Latin poem that Joseph wrote, offering kind words and friendship to me and to our editor.

A River Journey

Late bursts of summer raindrops fall to earth,
And the space between them is bright and dry,
Filled with silence and soft platinum breath
Of Summer mingled with the gray goose's cry.
I see bright aspens sparkle in clear light
That is rent in the changing seasons' flight.

Here then, between the sky and Tartarus,
In the fiery flux of Summer and Fall,
I wet my lips on sweat of Sisyphus,
And walk a glowing bed of smoldering coal
That leads me through swirls of falling leaf,
Of pied mortality and picrid grief.

This year puts on its garb of mourning tint,
And in the slate-blue mix of thunderhead
And arched rainbow, I breathe an ozone scent
Whose bitterness tells me I'm not yet dead,
That I am charged with the same energy
Which pulses through this purple greenery.

Behind the glow of daylight, in the cincture
Of starlit destiny, my Virgin walks
Among rich billows of tall, swaying amber;
And swollen ears on rich, tasseled stalks
Tremble, as brief seasons reach out across
The bridge of time, the cloven rock of loss.

Once the water seemed to flow between
My straddling limbs, but now it runs around
Me, and over me, and the sculpted green
Banks tinkle and trill with the sweet sound
Of river water rolling down with me,
Into an opalescent, sunlit sea.
Sent from my Galaxy

Charles d' ORLÉANS
   (circa 1394-1466)

Dedens mon Livre de Pensee

Dedens mon Livre de Pensée,
J'ay trouvé escripvant mon cueur
La vraye histoire de douleur,
De larmes toute enluminée
En deffassant la tresamée
Ymage de plaisant doulceur,
Dedens mon Livre de Pensée

Helas ! ou l'a mon cueur trouvée?
Lez grossez gouttez de sueur
Lui saillent, de peinne et labeur
Qu'il y prent, et nuit et journee,
Dedens mon livre de Pensée.

In The Book of My Reflection

Here in the book of my Reflection
I've found the record of my soul.
He writes the true history of my dole,
My sorrow's luminescence.
He makes indistinct my passion
And its image of sweetness recalled
Here in the book of my Reflection.

Alas where is found my heart's refection?
Large droplets of my sweat engulf it,
Pain and hardship swallow it
In night and day's progression,
Here in the book of my Reflection.


Some Personal Thoughts on Charles and His Poetry

When I read Charles his place in the medieval tradition of allegory is unmistakable. But his allegory is seldom the distant fabrication of a Guillaume de Lorris or a Jean de Meung. Nor is it the raw symbolism of a Baudelaire or the labyrinthine imagery of a Mallarmé. Often the Duke's allegory strikes me as bifurcated, evincing meaning on the level of the standard allegorical conventions, but also appealing on a level of shared emotion and common humanity.

Charles was the fifteenth century equivalent of the existential homme engagé. His delicate fancies are the thoughts of a man whose father was assassinated, an act for which he was required to swear a blood oath of vengeance. He was the chivalrous knight not of one of Chrétien's romances, but rather of the Hundred Years War and a rendezvous with destiny on the killing field at Agincourt, where, after the catastrophic defeat of his countrymen and comrades in arms, the victorious English found him alive, under a pile of corpses. This was the beginning of his long exile, twenty-five years of captivity in the land of the English victors.

Although Charles' captivity lacked the harshness which is usually ascribed to medieval prisons, it was not without its pains. He was in a strange land where he found a new language. Though separated from France by the narrow English Channel, he was dependent on strangers and the courtesy of enemies for both life and sustenance. He had to content himself with new weather, new cycles of the seasons, and new food. Only within the confines of gentlemanly captivity was he even master of his own body. In a foreign land he languished as his youth and early manhood slipped away. Over his exile there always hung the uncomfortable spectre of realpolitik, that he was a prisoner of war who had a strategic value as a pawn in international politics, as well as a cash value as a high-born hostage.

I imagine that he must have often thought of the Vulgate text of the 136th Psalm, with which he would have been intimately familiar,

In salicibus in medio ejus suspendimus organa nostra:
3 quia illic interrogaverunt nos, qui captivos duxerunt nos, verba cantionum; et qui abduxerunt nos: Hymnum cantate nobis de canticis Sion.

On the willows in their midst we hung our harps,
Because they who had snatched us away and led us into captivity at that place, asked of us words of singing, that we sing the hymns of Sion.

Unlike the Psalmist's captive Israelites, however, Charles, Duke of Orléans found words to sing in both his native Middle French and the Middle English of his captors.

Charles followed in the footsteps of the noble soldier poets who preceded him — men like Le Comte de Peiteus, Raimbaut d'Aurenga, Richard Coeur de Lion and Thibaut IV of Champagne. Like them he sang of love, of the wounded heart, and the pain of his own private anguish, captivity and exile. For Charles D'Orléans this courtly tradition operated through the influence of poetic technicians like Guillaume de Machaut and Alain Chartier, who gave new vitality to poetic allegory and practiced the fixed forms of rondeau and ballade.

But the love pangs and personal griefs of Charles are not of the confessional type. He is an aristocrat, a member of the high nobility, and he draws much of his material and vocabulary from the conventions of feudalism and amour courtois. We learn little of the identities of the beautiful ladies who populate his poems, and despite a gift for keen psychological observation and awareness, whatever insights this poet has to offer come to the reader in a code familiar to members of his social stratum and at a distance and indirectness which is both discreet and cryptic, veiled in the terms of a traditional and personal allegory and symbolism.

Rather than an objectification of psychological and ethical states of being, Charles will present them to us as personifications. He will not provide us with an analytic portrayal of his emotional states. Instead he builds for us an edifice of personified emotions, and, like a good host, he admits us to a tour of such places as Le Chateau de Coeur in which he shows us the ledgers and balance sheets of Love, Disappointment, Joy, Sorrow, Memory, Forgetfulness, and, overshadowing all, the long and omnipresent reach of Death. In a sense Charles is the poet of cyclical evanescence and inevitability, and we, his readers, are momentary participants in his losses, his defeats and victories in the lists of love, life and death, where for a timeless moment we shelter ourselves and our losses in Charles' own Domesday Book of our own souls' spiritual loss and gain, the record of their debts and debtors.

Although there have been attempts to read the Duke's poems as autobiography, their lack of specificity, the obliqueness of language and imagery, and the elaboration of allegorical types in lieu of realistic character development make strange autobiography indeed. I think the closest we come to autobiography and self-revelation may be in the poetry he wrote after the death of his beloved and as he aged (cf. Charles of Orleans by Sally Purcell, p. 8).

In the poem loosely rendered above, all the familiar types of medieval erotic allegory occur, but, as I read the poem, the allegory seems to stand with a little more immediacy. The Book of the Heart seems to be an image which speaks with all the intimacy of a shared heritage. It calls to mind the declaration, in the language of our own day, which tells us, "My heart is an open book." He gives us the familiar images of interior allegory, sorrow and its sweetness, the tears that blur the beloved image sealed in the heart. But then Charles surprises us by a sudden leap out of abstraction into the sphere of the concrete. But this is through the gossamer of a studied personal reticence. He is, after all, a prisoner of war, keeps his own counsel, maintains a tactical shroud around his heart's arcana.

That Charles in exile, as a prisoner of war, was able to pursue a literary career which emerges at the upper echelon of literary achievement is a remarkable achievement on his part. He excelled in poetry in two languages, French and English, and wrote well and elegantly in each.

As an ancilla to his literary production Charles had the good sense to use the fine libraries at his disposal, both in France and in England. In his exile he had the kindness and good will of his spiritual advisor, Thomas Wynchelsey. Thomas not only was a guide for Charles's spiritual voyages, but, as the founder of the London Greyfriar's Library, he also provided the Duke with intellectual refuge and stimulation through access to the fine Greyfriars' Library. Thomas apparently developed a genuine affection and admiration for Charles, for whom he wrote an Instructorium Providi Peregrini.

Charles was not a typical prisoner of war. At the Greyfriars he was able to exercise, through his trilingual abilities, his acumen in bidirectional Latin translation, making fair copies of psedoBonavenyure's Stimulus Amoris, and composing Latin prayers for his own devotions.

By the time Charles had returned to France, he was already past the flower of his youth. He was released in 1440. A condition of his release was that after payment of substantial ransom he swore a solemn oath not to seek revenge for the assassination of his father. On the brighter side his substantial personal library, upon his capture at Agincourt, had been moved to prevent it from becoming part of the spoils of war. Although Charles had several estates in France and Italy, when he returned home he seems to have favored his estate at Blois, where he set up his library, archives, and a competent Latin secretary and archivist to care for and organize the records, including his corpus of poetry. Although the existing collection contains over five hundred poems in French and English, there is still some question as to whether this represents Charles' complete works. At various points in the collection there are blank sheets. Whether these represent chronological spaces for poems still to be collected, or they represent spaces for poems still to be composed to fit into a still not clear design for a book is not clear. In many collections of Charles' writings the individual poems, numbered according to their positions in the collection at Blois, also receive a second enumeration according to the theories and preferences of the editor.

At Blois Charles lived the tripartite life of a man of letters, a patron of poets and artists, and a prince of the blood. Although the estate at Blois was somewhat of an open house for men of letters, Charles himself never abandoned the inward looking themes and manners of his earlier poetry. He still used the language and mannerisms of the feudalism into which he had been born, and these continued to serve him well, until 1466, when he hung up his pen and abandoned his inkwell to take his final journey into the repose of death and the renewal of history and poetic immortality.


Dictionnaire du Moyen Français, Édition Électronique (2020).

Encyclopédie Universalis, Édition Électronique.

Goodrich, Norma Lorre (1967). Charles of Orléans: A Study of Themes in his French and in his English Poetry. Librairie Droz.

Muhlethaler, Jean-Claude, (1992) Charles d'Orleans, Ballades et Rondeaux, Édition du manuscrit 25458 du fonds français de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris.

Purcell, Sally, (1979)The Poems of Charles of Orléans, selected and introduced by Sally Purcell, Carcanet Press Ltd.

Saintsbury, George(1911). "Orléans, Charles, Duke of". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 20 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Tison, Frédéric, (2011) Charles d'Orléans et les poètes de sa cour, "Je meurs de soif auprès de la fontaine," Les Onze Ballades du Puy de Blois, (vers 1457-1460)

For The Corpses, Old and New:

Breakfast Musings

July: the eighth year of war.
Obama's the commander in chief,
And I sit here at the Flying Star,
Bent like a pale, curling leaf.

Outside, beyond the farmers' market,
Poppies quake in a somnolent breeze:
A robot drone seeks out its target
Among programmed casualties.

The fruit of Jephtha's loins is dead.
Who remembers her or his fight?
Scorpions tryst on her maidenhead.
Decay and the desert grip them tight.


Jephtha was a Judge of Israel. In exchange for victory over the Ammonites he offered his daughter as a blood sacrifice. This Old testament passage has been troublesome to rabbinical and Christian commentators. I think it has a terrible message for the ages.

Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.

30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands.

33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.

36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,

40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.


On the Killing in Ukraine

Do not disturb the ghosts of Babi Yar,
Who lie in the shadows of this old ravine,
Where winter light shines on the shattered feldspar.

The doors of memory here stand ajar,
Opening onto a cold, denatured scene:
They sleep here, all those ghosts of Babi Yar.

The land's contours conceal a bitter scar
Where time is passing in a sad dream,
And winter light shines on the shattered feldspar.

Here let there be no untoward sound to mar
This quiet stretch of rock and sprawling green
That holds the muted voices of Babi Yar.

They rest here, having come from near and far.
Among the monuments and well trimmed green,
Cold winter light shines on the shattered feldspar.

Once more there is a cacophony of war,
But the sharp, lonesome winds quiver and keen,
"Do not disturb the ghosts of Babi Yar,
Where winter light shines on the shattered feldspar."

A Cygnet’s Song

Deneb, in your cool light I stand, while Time,
Which lies out there between us, beckons me
Into its far, unspoken mystery,
And silence coaxes me to swan-soft rhyme.
Was it so when sweet jasmine and fresh lime
Washed the flower-strewn bowers of old Araby,
And lovers, touched with light and poetry,
Cajoled the red rose and dark grape to climb?

I listen to low owl songs and the tear
Of the wind through the tall trees. Crickets sing,
The thin night clouds are silent, and the dark
Grows cold: here I stand, a bent, furrowed thing:
I wither in the limpid mountain air,
And my flame crackles, then shoots one last spark.

Deneb is claimed by both Cygnus, the Swan and The Northern cross. It is a first magnitude super blue giant, the brighter star in its group, and the 19th brightest in the Northern sky. Its name comes from Arabic, and it is one of the vertices of the Summer trianhle composed of Cygnus, Aquila, The Eagle, and Lyra, The Lyre.


Autumn Near the Peaks

Aspens, golden in the crisp, clear sunlight,
Arrayed in gleaming rows of silver bark,
Sway gently in the mountain breeze, and mark
This kiss between Summer and Winter’s bite.
Grasshoppers die, the last gray geese take flight:
Soon we will be reft of the meadow lark,
And, as the moist days sink into their dark
Solstice, mute snow will cling to day and night.

Winter is first in these high places, far
From the first seedling’s tender sprout and all
The blandishments of Spring. Winter is last
To free the frozen sap, to heal the scar
On last year’s wood. How many leaves will fall,
Love, and seeds sleep before our Winter’s past?


Spring Melt

When the meadowlark's song carries over
The melting snow, and velvet bucks break bare,
Thinning crust, my thoughts are of my lover
And the soft silk of her obsidian hair.

She stands beside me in pine-scented air,
And with her hand in mine, grips my sorrow,
Shuts fast and bolts the storeroom of my care,
The murky oubliette of our tomorrow.

From the crust a frond of feathery yarrow
Pushes through the bone-white, melting snow.
Above our heads a gray, flirtatious sparrow
Awakens us and makes our sapwood flow:

And I am certain, in this brilliant cold,
That we, not love's green fire, grow bent and old.


This poem is a Spenserian sonnet.

...velvet buck: deer shed and regrow their antlers annually. The antlers are very fast growing, about one to two centimeters each day. The new growth is covered with a fine network of blood vessels and a fine, soft skin which is called velvet. This velvet is an irritant that causes the deer to itch. The buck relieves this discomfort by scraping the new growth until all the velvet falls off. This process appears to be photoperiodic, i.e., it is triggered by the lengthening days and increased daylight of Spring.

...feathery yarrow: yarrow is a plant that has served a variety of functions since ancient times. One of its many names, Achillea Millefolium, honors its reputation as a vulnerary supposedly used by Achilles to treat the wounds of his Myrmions. The plant, which has stalks which grow from feathery leaves or fronds, has also been famous for a variety of apotropaic properties such as warding off harmful spirits and granting to the individual who wears the leaf or packs it into the nose a dream vision of his or her true love, a use that was usually accompanied by the recitation of a charm or spell. I chose sapwood rather than heartwood because the latter, though hard and durable, lacks the association with annual quickening which is characteristic of sap and sapwood.

...a gray, flirtatious sparrow / Awakens us and makes our sapwood flow: since ancient times sparrows have been honored by poets for their connections to erotic behavior. In Greek poetry sparrows, famous for their libidinous behavior, were portrayed as drawing the chariot of Aphrodite. In Latin verse there is a body of erotica from Catullus and Martial through the Latin lyricists of the Renaissance in which sparrows are metonymous for sexual behavior. The death of a sparrow was representative of sexual deprivation, its presence a token of flourishing love. Their observed promiscuity and fecundity are the source for the erotic elevation of this little bird.

The final couplet is, I think, self explanatory: though we grow old and fail, love and passion persist and are renewed over the years.


The Dice Are Cast

My Love, as I sit here in sunlight's last
Gold fire, I look at you and picture me,
Remembering us as we used to be,
Before we sink, beaten and outclassed

By the white bones, the grim, ill-fated cast
Of snake eyes, boxcars, and the fatal three
That sweeps us from the cloth as fate's debris,
Cashed out with little fanfare or bombast.

As our sun sets I think of endless night,
Our wick burned out, and all our lamp oil spent,
And darkness covering us in our cold bed,

Where we will sleep in the new moon's dark light,
Outcasts in that swift, ultimate descent
Into the marriage chamber of the dead.


I think I had Donne and Crashaw whispering in my ear as this poem took shape.

...ill-fated cast / Of snake eyes, boxcars, and the fatal three: In craps if you play with the shooter, and on the first cast of the dice he rolls two, three or twelve, you and he lose your bets. There are slang names for the various dice combinations: snake eyes is two, boxcars is twelve. I used the number three, but it is sometimes designated three-crap, ace-deuce, or deuce-ace. The dice themselves are often referred to as the bones, presumably because at one time they were made of bone. Traditionally the color of the cloth on a craps table has been green and more recently blue. I think I've seen a red cloth, suggesting that the playing field of craps may soon follow the sanitized color schemes of modern billiards tables.


La Primavera: A Song of Three

My heart is aching for that far off day
When we would call the dog and walk the wood
Through whipple stands and fragrant blooms of May,
And you would mount my back, and pump my blood

With the gentle friction of your breasts,
While I would carry you in golden sun,
And scatter the soft thrushes from their nests,
And trample mulch where the velvet bucks run:

How quickly months and years fly by us here,
For we have dried into the withered leaf,
Where beauty and the lips of yesteryear
Are washed in a long dry wash of warm grief,

And we, who never were supposed to die,
Ponder this deep well in the raven's eye.

...washed in a long dry wash: the word duplication is a rhetorical device by which a word is repeated, but with different meaning in each repetition. Among the ancients this device was named adnominatio or polyptopon.


For Doctor Chavez and the Phlebotomist

I hear and fear those horses of the night
Clip clopping through worn pathways of my flesh.
Time, grizzled, fails, trampled underfoot,
And the soul's spark goes cold in one quick flash.

Numbers: BUN, calcium, creatinine
And GFR, cells on a bingo card,
Insinuate the wages of Adam's sin,
Deep slashes of Beelzebub's cold sword.

Was it Cicero who said no man
Is too old to think he's young enough
To add another year to his life's span,
To look into the mirror, then to laugh

At that eroded visage in the cold glass,
That dares not say, "Old man, you too will pass?"


Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere. (De Senectute, 24)
No one is so old that he may not think himself able to live another year. (Cicero, De Senectute, 24)



As I look down at your closed lids, moonlight
Of cream-white agate beams, cascades across
Your languid face, lights it with a pearl gloss
That, subdued, restrains black beauty of night.

Your lips, violet loveliness, are bedight
With promises of sleepy kisses, dreamy loss
Of self in petals of love's long embrace,
Of cloth of black and rays of lunar white.

Nemi's waters lap the shores of your eyes.
Crossroads of birth and death are joined in you,
And the cold, marble moon shines as twilight dies.

In your pearl embrace bright stars renew
The darkness, and in velvet of deep skies
I nip your mouth and breathe your scented thighs.


In days gone by the imagery of this poem and its dénouement might have been thought of as replete with "conceit." As I sifted through the color and mineral images, I had in the back of my mind Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "Sonnet To Black Beauty," although I did not borrow from it or imitate it.

...Moonshine: In my wife's language her name, Chamchun, means the light of the moon.

...Nemi's waters lap the shores of your eyes: Lake Nemi was a famous sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, Triple Goddess of the Sacred Grove. She was the goddess of the hunt, deity of the Moon, and the dark goddess of the Underworld. The Roman poet, Horace, called her diva triformis. For Catullus and Vergil she was Trivia, perhaps suggesting a goddess of crossroads. For modern readers she is probably best known from Frazer's Golden Bough and its fable of the Rex Nemorensis, the sacrificial King of the Grove.

Lines from François Villon and Alain Chartier
(For each author the original Middle French is followed by an English adaptation.)

François Villon

Item donne aux amans enfermes
Sans le laiz maistre Alain Chartier
A leurs chevez, de pleurs et lermes
Trestout fin plain, ung benoistier
Et ung petit brain d'eglantier
En tous temps vert pour guepillon
Pourveu qu'ilz diront ung psaultier
Pour l'ame du povre Villon.

Item, to the sick lovers I leave,
With the bequest of Alain Chartier,
A font for the tears they'll shed in grief,
At their bedside a bénitier,
And eglantine in a little spray,
Forever green, with which to shower
Them, provided they will say
For poor Villon's soul a Psalter.
     (Le Testament ll 1804-1811)

Alain Chartier

Je laisse aux amoureux malades
Qui ont espoir d'allégement
Faire chansons, ditz et balades,
Chacun en son entendement.
Car ma Dame en son testament
Prit, à la mort.Dieu en ait l'âme!
Et emporta mon sentement,
Qui git où elle sous la lame.

Désormais est temps de moi taire
Car de dire je suis lassé.
Je vueillais laisser aux autres faire
Leur temps, car le mien est passé ;
Fortune a le forgier cassé
Où j'espargnoye ma richesse,
Et le bien que j'ai amassé
Au meilleur temps de ma jeunesse.

To the sick lovers who still have some hope
Of respite from their heart-felt pangs of grief,
I leave the making of songs, ballades and poems
According to the competence of each.
For such did my lady will in her scroll.
In death has she made off with all I feel—
May the lord god give his care to her soul—
For my heart lies here under her gravestone's seal.

Henceforth I enter my season of silence,
And sink in lassitude too deep for talk.
To others I would leave the tale of their seasons,
For now my season's course is spent and gone.
Fortune has plundered my great store of treasures,
Where I heaped all the riches that were mine,
The goods that I had gathered unto myself,
When I enjoyed my youth's better time.
       (La Belle Dame Sans Merci ll 25-40)


Season: the French temps and its source, the Latin tempus, can both mean time or season.

Bénitier: a holy water basin. I decided to render benoistier by its Modern French equivalent.

In their verses poets often talk to one another across the years, across the centuries. In Le Grant Testament Villon makes a bequest to Alain Chartier's lovers from his La Belle Dame Sans Merci. He asks of them the recitation of a psalter in exchange for his bequest of a holy water basin and a branch of eglantine to be used as an aspergillum.

The lines printed above are Villon's bequest and Alain Chartier's words to his lovers. In their poems Villon and Alain use the huitain, eight octosyllabic lines cross-rhymed, with the B rhyme of the first quatrain becoming the A or lead rhyme of the second quatrain. Through loose assonance and other sound approximations I have loosely followed the pattern of the Middle French. However, for the sake of attempting a fluid seriousness achieved by Chartier, I have altered the individual lines to loose decasyllables which, at least to me, have a fluidity that retains some gravity without becoming ponderous. Villon's lines are approximated in loose tetrameters.

Catullus LIX

Bolognese Rufa likes to blow
That fellow Rufus, who's her little bro.*
She's Menenius' wife. Often you'll see
Her at work in the cemetery,**
Where she robs food stuffs from the pyre.
Once, she spied a loaf that rolled from the fire:
The half-shaven guy who burns the dead
Banged her as she chased after that bread.***
Bononiensis Rufa Rufulum fellat,
uxor Meneni, saepe quam in sepulcretis
vidistis ipso rapere de rogo cenam,
cum devolutum ex igne prosequens panem
ab semiraso tunderetur ustore.

I am not the first reader or commentator to conjecture an incestuous relationship between Rufa and Rufulus. Within the families of slaves and freedmen it was common for siblings to share variants of the same name, often through use of a diminutive. Here I've included that scurrilous tidbit in my translation. Rufa appears to have specialized in two activities: fellatio and theft of food offerings from funeral pyres.
* C. Nappa, Catullus 59, Rufa among the Graves, Classical Philogy, vol. 94, No. 3 (1999), p. 331
** The British pronunciation of "cemetery" makes a better rhyme.
*** To me the sexual double entendre in tunderetur is obvious, but supporting evidence for my choice of "banged" to convey both a physical beating and a sex act may be found in Nappa, p. 332.
Also consider the treatment of pertundo and tundo in J.N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary, Johns Hopkins (1990) p. 148:
Tundo and pertundo...would have been capable of sexual undertones in a suggestive context. A goddess Pertundo allegedly played a part in the deflowering of the bride...The name must be based on a sexual use of pertundo...The simplex tundo is possibly synonymous with futuo [fuck] at Catull. equated with mentula [dick, penis] in glosses.

To this I would add that slang and exotic punning can be among the most challenging aspects of study for literary texts of any period. A good example of this is the poetry in Villon's Le Jargon et Le Jobelin, much of which is still undecipherable. This little note on tunderetur illustrates the degree of uncertainty and double entendre which may be contained in seemingly straightforward expressions.

Some Songs and Sonnets for Patsy

January 8, 1955 – September 11, 1967

Little cousin, tree rings and crisp, clipped grass
Part us, joined as we are, by an old grief
That chokes us in silence. It will not pass,
Though I grow old, while you, still young, must sleep
Among dark clods of earth and spreading roots
Which claw through the moist soil, but do not reach
Your little ossuary. Thick, tight knots
Of love and memory have bound us, each
To the other, though for you the clash
Of heart and mind does not exist as life
Goes on around your aging grave. The splash
Of water on your stone, the lunar white
Snow against the green stubble, wash
Away those graven images that, wrought
In rock and memory, glimmer and flash
Like a brief raindrop in late Autumn light.

The little girl of this poem was an oversight of divine providence. She suffered terribly, yet probably no more than other children similarly afflicted. But she was my beloved, and I have never forgotten her. Before cancer snuffed out the light in her eyes, she endured painful treatments and blindness. A lingering death was the price she paid for her twelve years among the living.


Who are you here behind this drapery
Of closed eyelids? Who did you use to be
Before the broken stones and verdant sward
Severed us with not a single word?

It was September, in a bitter year,
That you trembled and bid adieu to fear.
It was September, and a bitter day,
When suited strangers took your corpse away.

I was in New York then, a bitter man,
Who would never look on you again.
Now I am old enough to sense my end,
And know, in death we'll still not meet again.

I was just twenty-one. A few months earlier she had turned twelve. A few months later and she was dead in her fifth year of cancer.

Alone in Penn's Woods

My child, I cannot think of you down there,
Where the golden sun never shines,
Where you are sealed in final cloth of cere,
In endless darkness and the grave's confines.

You were a little girl with wheat straw hair,
Skin like marble of Paros; but the tines
Of the great Crab, on long, splayed claws, would tear
Your flesh and shave your bones to fragile splines.

It was near Summer's end: your lights went dead,
And your sweet flesh turned as dark as the grave
That holds you fast in your final bed

Of soft, unsullied pillows, which they gave
That you might lay the casket of your head
There in that little niche in death's sad cave.

Let Nothing You Dismay

Yes, dear, I knew you once upon a time,
Before the darkness covered you, when gold
Stubble glistened with fine drops of silver rime,
And our laughter tinkled in winter cold.

Dear child, how I loved to touch, to hold
You to my puckered lips and beardless face.
Joined together we danced and fell and rolled
Across the earth in spurts of shortlived grace.

Bessie, Jack and Sparkie howled as we would chase
Each other through the glistening hoarfrost,
Until grandma would call for pancakes
And hot blackberry jam, and thick-sliced toast.

Those were our days. Fresh flowers were on your breath,
And we knew not the cold hemlock of death.

Summer Echo

It is the summer of my dying phlox,
Still-born they dried before they could break ground.
Lanky sunflowers invade their naked ground,
Stretching shadows on soil and fractured rocks.

My dear, a poaching raven jeers and mocks
These nesting doves, whose gentle, cooing sound
Reminds me that you are not here, but bound
Instead under dark soil and fractured rocks.

The sun stood still some fragrant weeks ago,
Marking a new season bereft of you,
Who, dead to birth and death, lie there alone,

Beneath a springy quilt of summer grass,
And an unyielding silence that won't pass,
Even at fell time's final, muted groan.

September Meditation in a Dark Hermitage

You left among the blooms of mid-September,
When the bright August moon no longer shone,
And the star-filled Virgin walked the Summer
Sky. Then I learned the meaning of “alone" –

From a rampart in a sprawling tree
The mournful elegy of an owl’s moan
Trembles on a night breeze and enters me,
Penetrating deep into flesh, sinew and bone.

My swollen eyes are filled with salt and lead,
Small, fluttering bats circle overhead,
Spreading wide in a sprawling sapphire throng:

Gray moths daub dry my eyes, fireflies light
Their solitude, and in the flickering night,
Death tears at the heartaches of the young.

Spring Passage

This Spring's last snow lingered on the peaks,
And spotted fawns sucked dugs of milk-rich does.
Around them broken ice floes
Ran down through corkscrew turns of twisting creeks.
Loose, babbling coils of silver rills
Circled hummocks of brown reeds
And clumps of bobbing water weeds,
And washed the wetlands with crisp, peppery cress.
Egg-laden songbirds promised brief tomorrows
While April drew to a slow close,
And honey bees kissed the brief rose.
Sleep, now, with heavy earth on your still breast,
Insensate and unburdened of those sorrows
Which do not gnaw at you in death's repose,
Where neither rains nor bitter snows
Disturb your nothingness, or our dumb grief.

Anachronistic, Archaic and Hybridized Version of a Rondeau by Villon, from Le Grant Testament

Deth of thy rigour I mak ple
Thou hast from me my maitres ta'en
Hungrie yet thou dost remayne
And dost me prisoune in languor
And I have had ne strength ne vigor
In life what wrong enforced she
Deth of thy rigour I mak ple

If two we were on our hertes be
If she be ded ded mote I ben
Truly fro lif sceall I refreine
As do reliques bi herte be we
Deth of thy rigour I mak ple

Mort, j'appelle de ta rigueur
Qui m’as ma maistresse ravie
Et n’es pas encore assouvie
Se tu ne me tiens en langueur
Onc puis n’euz force ne vigueur
Mais que te nuysoit-elle en vie
Mort J'appelle de ta rigueur

Deux estions, et n’avions qu’ung cueur
S’il est mort, force est que devie
Voire, ou que je vive sans vie
Comme les images, par cueur
Mort, j’appelle de ta rigueur

This is a famous rondeau which has been set to music many times. The method of this rendering is as stated in the title/caption, not to produce a phonological specimen of dialect or period. Kudos to Pound, Chatterton and Spenser. In words like rigour, vigour, languor and maitres the word stress could be variable, shifting back and forth from ultimate to penultimate.

The refrain on the first line was often printed Mort and the reciter or singer supplied the rest of the line. At the first refrain, at the end of the first strophe, Mort is to be understood as the end of a question, with the rest of the line forming a declarative sentence.

The translation follows the Middle French original's lack of punctuation. I imagine that Ben Jonson's quip on Spenser might apply here to the English "He writ no language."

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. ( >> 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


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.


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.

The HyperTexts