Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ice Wine

As the light withdraws, I concentrate
On summer, other days, warm memories.
I see the ice congealing on those grapes
Missed during the September harvest, left
Clinging to the vines. Perhaps it’s time

To close my eyes, to let the cold be cold
And not complain about stiff fingers. I’m
Sure I’ll find the strength inside to let
The winter work its magic on me, too.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Stick of Incense

For Gavin

The litter other lovers
Leave always appears
So poignant in the dark:
Kleenex, condoms, sad
Old ghosts exchanging
Ectoplasmic spasms.

Let us leave nothing
Sad as this behind—
Not even our footprints—
Just our scent, the smell of
Something burning
Sweetly. Let us leave

A stick of incense.
Wherever we wind up,
We go together, hand
In hand—aware
That, fuck or suck, we
Knelt on holy ground.

Reading the Auspices

For Gavin

Yes, I am going to the priest.
There’s no point in concealing it.
I’ve lost two pounds. Nothing
Feels at home inside my mouth.
I cannot eat. Strange prodigies
Surround me. Look, just yesterday,

The clerical collar of a cock—
A very snug white foreskin
Belonging to a beautiful Pole—
Evaporated before my eyes—
In a puff of satanic smoke—
When I opened the steamroom door.

If this were not bad enough—
I suffered an erection when
I was assaulted in Grand Central
By cinnamon and baked apples—
So strong a scent the station
Took on Edenic overtones.

Tonight, I donned a sweaty black
Pair of running shorts and ran
To my bodega for beer—into
A pair of trannies. They squeezed
My testicles so hard with their eyes
My balls began to bleed like stones.

Are these good signs or bad? Each day
I get a billet doux—a poem.
I am in love, I think. But will
The poems cease if my guts
Run out of fresh entrails for you
To read, review, and analyze?

Four Koans

For Gavin

The sound of a pen
moving does not
a poem make, although
that pen may still contain
a multitude.

Your soul remains
more ink to me
than man: something
fluid I try
to grasp, like hope.

When I am tired,
my language sharp,
the mantra which
my heart repeats
is very soft—

so listen close.
Put your ear
against the phone
and close your eyes:
the sounds of home.

Strange Lights

For Gavin

Don’t think me cynical
if I find love incredible—
miraculous as that
distant day I first
heard it described in
the salty language sailors use
by a man I met inside
a misty waterfront tavern.
I stood a round of drinks to
hear his spectacular stories—
reports of fire dancing—
mastheads at midnight—
the South China Sea—
the center of violent typhoons.

I’ve read of love in shady
journals: strange reports—
couples coupling in cars
parked in desolate areas
seeing inexplicable lights
emanating from above.
Some say they were kidnapped
by cold-fingered aliens,
intimately probed,
then quietly returned to earth,
anesthetized. Still,
I have yet to see one
souvenir pillow
embroidered “Andromeda.”

The most credible account
I’ve found occurs inside
the Chronicles of Canterbury.
There, before the Feast
of St. John the Baptist,
in the year 1178,
five monks witnessed a
large meteor strike the moon:
its horns split in two—
spewing molten rock into
outerspace. This is
recorded by Gervase,
a reliable historian.
A man of God.

I think of myself when
I think of Gervase;
I think of strange lights when
I think of you. Clearly,
love is a celestial
event. You even
lead me to believe
all these stories are true.

A Prayer to Shiva

For Gavin

Thunder, thunder, thunder.
Bitch, bitch, bitch.
What kind of performance is this?
Here I am prostrate before you—
All humility—on
All fours, ass in the air,
A perfectly submissive creature.
What do you do? You bitch.
You topple empires, skip galaxies
Across the emptiness
Like rocks across a pond.
Lord, it must be boring
Out there in the universe.
Next thing you know you’ll start
Pulling wings off flies. What

A strange god you are.
Look, Shiva, before
You draw a black line through
Creation, or, on second thought,
Crumple the whole thing
Up, toss it over your
Great shoulders, like so
Much waste paper, why don’t
You take a lesson from
Zeus? Just drop by in a shower
Of gold—for a good time?
Just you and me. Why not
Make it tonight? The stars do not
Need you as much I do.
Loved or unloved, up there,
They will continue to shine.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The End of Rhyme

For Gavin

I do not have cold feet. I am afraid,
When this is finished, I will have to find
Something else to do besides write
Chatty letters and love poetry.

As much as coffee, your e-mails have
Become a part of my morning routine.
How should I wake up to a blank screen—
Nothing from Gavin Dillard? I mean,

We close this book, one chapter of our lives,
Begin another one tonight, in flesh,
Fresh ink, fresh paper, new possibilities.
The words we’ve written will remain. But

What will we make of all that we have done
When we wake in San Francisco? Will
We leave behind those separate lives
We lived before? How will we appear

To one another in the morning? How
Much older, fatter, or more frail,
A thousand years from now? I hope we’ll be
Associated then, at least on paper,

Less with art, than a belief in love.
Though Maui and New York, 6,000 miles,
Age, HIV, experience, different
Styles of writing and sleep schedules

Might have concluded things another way,
Before we found a publisher, you
And I found Bryan. Here we go then. Down.
I must put my laptop away. It seems

We’ve started our descent for Oakland.
I will be holding you in a few hours.
Meanwhile, I plan to close my eyes and pray
We both land safely. What else can I say?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cashew Nuts

For Gavin

Cold feet? Not on this flight.
Just small horns and cloven hooves,
as behooves a ghoul like me:
poet, runner, Nabokov lover,
Olympic class badminton champion
according the tale I told Wendi—
a fan—a Facebook buddy—who
told me you were digging up
dirt on Eric Thomas Norris. I
fed her the false badmintion story.
You believed it. Hah! Now,
hold on to your testicles while I
bat them. Badminton. Honestly.
You’re still a little brother, eyes
gigantic, blossoming with wonder.
What will I do with you? Before
you answer that poetically,
curse me out for impudence, please
remember that I am at JFK
about to catch a plane. I’m starving,
surrounded by stale sandwiches,
globs of gray humus, sun-flower
seeds and other tasteless treats.
You probably had a nice breakfast:
SPAM and eggs, toasted pineapple,
washed down with some exotic tea
which only grows in Borneo.
I see you there, in Paradise,
purple dressing gown, buttering
a spelt muffin with a machete—
A touch of Noel Coward’s ennui.
See how Heaven favors you?
The Gods have punished me. I
accidentally bit into a cashew
concealed inside a packet of
mixed nuts. I am in trouble now,
practically erupting into hives.
The last time I ate cashews, I went
into anaphylactic shock, nearly
died, when my blood pressure
Collapsed. Calm down. Relax.
I took one bite this time. Enough
to almost kill me, just enough
to tighten up my throat—to give
my voice the necessary texture—
depth of tone—so you receive
a spectacular blow-job later.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


For Gavin

I am learning how to bleed
Without clotting. To be myself,
In other words, submit to what
My heart is telling me. You are
The most irritating prick I’ve
Never met. You won’t stop poking
Your nose in my most private parts.
You should be crucified. You

Ask for blood. Well, here it is.
Just leave my veins running in-
Definitely. I won’t run out.
I know I love you, since you bring
No peace of mind, no solace, no-
Thing, but insomnia and
Strange fevers at odd hours. God
Damn your appetite. Your mouth.

This is what I look forward to.
Torment. Waking up at 4:00
AM, checking my e-mail
To see if you have written. No.
You shit and trample on my dreams
Even when you say nice things.
Absurd. You—you sleep peacefully
A million miles away. That is

Not fair. That is not fair at all.
So I am sending a cloud of
Mosquitoes to drive you mad.
A few may have malaria,
So you had better smack the right ones.
They will be there, biting you,
Buzzing in your ears tonight,
So you can feel what I feel. Now.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


For Gavin

You burned all your wood last night, you say.
Let’s see if I have anything you can
Haul back to Maui for those wretched nights—
When you’re hemmed in by darkness, pouring rain,
Trapped in the tropics, slapping phantoms, those
Mosquitoes sucking all your blood away.

I’ll look around New York, see what I have:
A coffee table, couch, bed, some books—
Mostly memorized. My life is yours,
If you can carry it. Chop it up. Stick
It in your hearth, or build a fire out back—
Invite the insects to enjoy the blaze.

None of my possessions make sense anymore
Except as kindling. What good are books
In bed—even yours? All I want is you.
Poems might as well be mosquitoes for all
The joy they give. Burn them. Burn everything.
Fuck everything. Let’s go somewhere else and live.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Lay Of The Land

For Gavin

However the topography turns out—
How green the grass, how succulent the clover,
How many trees, the quantity of shade,
How the branches vary through the seasons,

Through all weathers, fair or foul, if clouds
Define the upper boundaries of the place,
If a sprinkling of thistles, stars, should form
The borders I bump up against—I know

These features, fences, all of these limits
Amount to nothing—one of those old jokes
Time and space will make at our expense.
I feel your arms enfolding me, like Freddy,

That bright black billy in your photograph.
The area inside your heart is vast
According to our numbers. See, we are

No ordinary goats. We’ve done the math.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mundus Cuniculi

For Gavin

Of all your incarnations—
from growling Siva to
pipe blowing Pan,
to Miss Emily Dick-
inson, who borrows your
mouth, occasionally,
whispering suggestions
into my pink, erect
blushingly sensitive
rabbit ears—this curious
blend of personnae—
Adam and Hadrian—
animal man and Roman
your affections best.

No fig leaves for you,
no Eden either, now
painfully aware how
booby-trapped apples
tend to explode.
You mind your mattock,
count your chickens,
look after your goats,
having learned the hard
way about gardens:
you acknowledge your
past, then bathe
your ass. Paradise—
you have other things—
other concerns. Like Eve,

you are a busy man.
you have concrete
to pour—a Mundus
—a Bunny
World to build—
a legacy to leave
behind for all
the furry creatures
who have been nursed
in your lap, called
your pubic bone
a home. I think
when you depart this
volcanic island
sanctuary, Maui, for

the life hereafter, Black
Mountain, North
Carolina, no one
will feel abandoned by
an absconded God
goofing off in Asheville.
Bunny World will
remain: evidence a
few emperors exist
besides Caligula.
I bet, in the future,
small mammals will regard
your works with wonder, like
lost hikers do the wall
of Hadrian. (Who,
you know, was gay.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Commuter Blues

For Gavin

Leaning against a leaky lav-
This morning on the 8:04
Express, hurtling toward another
Day in New York, I read the piece

You sent last night. I felt so sad.
The sun seemed bright and pointless—
A single knitting needle stuck

Through a big ball of orange yarn.

I’ve nothing to look forward to—
There’s nothing on my schedule—
Except the poem I will write
For you. I’m always happy to

Write poems. But I’m afraid
Art is not enough. No
Matter what I say, or do,
That happy feeling never lasts.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Animal Sanctuary

For Gavin

I’m sure your rabbits will be happy there.
Yours sounds much friendlier than mine—
That asylum I was once placed in—
Church: a clean, cadaverous Baptist
Interior, supported by dark ribs,
A space capable of accommodating
A thousand souls according to the fire
Code restrictions. It was Hell. Our
Choir sang hymns in satin pajamas, blue,
Piano on the left, organ on the right,
A madman in the middle. I would poke
Holes in his upholstery with a pencil
I kept sharp for that specific purpose.
I longed for an Apocalypse—a really
Loud fart—a nuclear catastrophe—
A final trumpet—to put an end to the
Announcements—meetings, births, deaths—
Epistles to the Galatians, Colossians,
Galoshes, Dalmatians, and the wrinkly
Sound of hands, in unison, just
Flipping pages. It went on forever.
The Lord’s Supper proved such a meager
Meal, hardly even a snack, really—
Matzo fragments and a thimble of Welch’s
Grape juice—which I was forbidden. (I
Was not baptized.) I wanted to get
Out, go to McDonald’s, anywhere,
For lunch. I poked the pew impatiently,
I drew a zillion pairs of Golden Arches—
MMMMMM—in the back of my Bible—
Filling up the white end pages—those
God left blank after Revelations. I
Loved the hymns. I loathed the sermons. They
Ended with Amens at one, with my
Stomach angrily growling. That’s why
I am so glad you’re adding your own
Ecclesiastical flair to that Maui
Sanctuary. I bet communion in
Any safe haven you would devise
Would keep demented parsons out, but still
Admit a few strange boys in bunny suits—
Those looking to gnaw on a raw carrot,
Or thirsty for some unusual tipple,
You would smile and generously provide.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Camel

For Gavin

The love is in the writing, yes. It is
This pencil—architect of all my hopes.
I suck on my eraser, like a nipple.
The friction of the lead provides some heat.
The little squiggles which adorn my man-
Uscript, swim wonderfully between the
Lines, like freshly ejected sperm,
Seeking, out of instinct, a nice, warm
Place they can kick off their flippers,
Crack a Michelob, exhausted, and unwind.
A mouth, a hand, some other place. Who knows?

Your last poem mentioned your career,
Retiring from porn, continuing to appear
Naked, reading poetry in California.
I was in college then, learning from my dad
Sucking cock was probably something
A boy in Buffalo ought not to do.
Soon after he discovered my diary,
I found myself searching for a butt one
Night along the shoulder of a road
So dark it seemed to lead into a future
Paved entirely in blackness, coal.

A scattering of stars, a slice of Moon,
The prick of a pink planet, Mars, I think,
Took pity on me, like the passing cars.
Those headlights allowed me to pick out
A discarded pack of Camels which
Concealed one cigarette and puff of air.
How incredible that find: how Moon
And Mars, Camel and cars, kept
Me company that night. But the sparks
Of a tossed Marlboro let me smoke
Where I was going—a dim, orange glow.

I thanked the driver as he sped away,
Truck dwindling to a pair of rubies. I
Had no matches in my pocket—no-
Thing useful, no money, no house keys:
A Latin book in my backpack, Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, toothbrush, clothes,
Socks and soiled underwear. And still
How lucky I felt—and not too cold—
Now that I could smoke. The poetry
We’d write together was so far away—
Farther than Mars, that truck driver, you

Standing naked in L.A. And love,
While that Camel lasted, didn’t seem
A possibility all that remote.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How To Write A Romance: Backwards

For Gavin

Time is non-linear. Cause and effect
Reflect a thoughtless habit. There’s no law
Which says when you or I begin a book
We can’t start writing it from the rear-end.

True, there are Physicists who may object;
They might suggest that we have stacked the deck
In favor of a certain outcome. Well,
Perhaps we have. But what is wrong with that?

We’re poets, not professors, you and me,
A pair of horny homosexuals, crazed
With lust. We were not born to gather dust
Or chew up books in basements, like a rat.

I’m glad you started munching on my butt—
By butt, I mean those photographs I sent—
Instead of slowly plodding through my whole
Biography to understand me. Now,

The poetry awaits discovery:
The scent of citrus soap combined with sweat,
The tangy taste of something on your tongue
Implicit in those naked pictures. No,

Nothing is pre-ordained. You take that chance.
You asked me to remove my underpants.
I did. Then we continued writing, knowing
Exactly how the story would turn out.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


For Gavin

Your absences are fangs.
They plunge in, then withdraw
My soul. I feel your mouth
Fixed below my jaw:

The space where you should be
Nestled in, my neck,
Is empty as my bed.
I do not expect

To wake and find a pair
Of punctures in my throat,
My curtains flapping, or
A gothic-scripted note.

Everything will be
Normal: window cracked,
A pillow on the floor,
Door locked. You’ll be back

Tonight. You’re always there,
Behind me, like the Past,
A shadow I can’t shake.
How can the Future cast

A shadow back in time—
Seize me by the wrist,
Twist me around to face
Days which don’t exist

Yet? Is that power yours?
I half believe it’s so,
Since you are reading this.
I need you now. Although

I am not certain why
I ought to feel that way.
I know that you’ll be back
To torture me tonight.

Not stay.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Shropshire Lad

For Gavin

Wherever you are, there I am.
I’ve really been there all along.
In all your songs, the quiet parts,
The place where you can hear your heart

Beating. I am there. Inside:
I stir the fires in your hearth,
Coals blanketed by ashes, softly
Smoldering, orange as dawn.

Woken by a cock, or clock,
Think of me as the lad who comes
With crumpled news, kindling, and lungs,
To poke the ashes, toast the bread.

He spoons the jelly in a dish,
Pours milk into a pewter pot,
He listens to the kettle sing.
He remembers everything,

How hot, how sweet, et cetera.
It’s all upstairs, inside my head:
All the things which I might bring,
Which you sometimes forget.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

At The Window

For Gavin

Vision is an act of will.
The blind may feel more features on
on a face than you or I
can see. Astronomers have
mapped a hundred billion stars
invisible to human eyes
in different kinds of light.

This morning, guided by a dull
and distant glow, I raised my
window blinds for the millionth time
thinking the logistics through
from the perspective of John Donne:
he’s half a planet away and no
closer. What is my dick to do?

The local universe hadn’t changed
much overnight: the oak leaves
outside seemed a little crispier,
the children’s coats a little puffier,
the people walking quicker—where-
ever they were going—work,
school, some appointment, home.

Still, the position of that bright
gray glob—the sun—reminded me
that—although geographically
Maui and New York might lay
exactly the same distance
apart on maps—your ass also

was twenty-four hours closer.
Even more, perhaps.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Collaborators

For Gavin

Chimeras, slaves, or funny faces,
What we are, we must become
Together. Kissing cousins, friends,
Lovers, bitter disappointments, they
Color all our sunsets. And yet

The more I talk to you, the more
I walk around my neighborhood
Until my poor iPhone drops dead—
Its batteries exhausted—the more
Each sunset seems irrelevant.

Some days ago, I can’t think when,
Or what I must have said, you placed
Your finger on a key, pressed send,
Applied some gentle pressure. We
Ceased to write separate poems

Then. I responded to your words.
My heart, stupid musclehead he is,
Continued pumping iron. I didn’t skip
A single meal. Nor did my bowels
Stop moving out of reverence for you.

The only thing I noticed was
The way I viewed blank paper had
Changed. Everything was different.
Then, each sheet became a bed
Where you and I could fuck forever.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Edna St. Vincent Millay Sends a Letter to Emily Dickinson from Kyoto

For Gavin

I must apologize for the delay
in writing this. The flight from
New York was Hell—
cramped, full of crying, food
inedible. Still, you get hungry and
you eat, and you receive
constipation for
your pains. I’m never flying
coach again. But here

I am, Emily—Japan!
My hotel, the Garden Palace, has
put me in a cherry blossom
room—all pink—synthetic
silk bedspread, rice paper sheets.
The usual Hokusai reprint
leans from the wall above my bed
ready to drown my dreams:
‘The Great Wave
Off Kanagawa.’ You’ve seen it.
Mount Fuji, little boat,
dark tsunami looming
over it with foamy fingers.
You might think the people of
Japan only produced
one great picture.

You asked about the temples.
Well, they’re gigantic,
old and everywhere.
They all sell amulets and prayers—
long life, fertility, good fortune—
the standard wishes.
I bought all three for you,
dear, and one more
which shall, for now,
remain a mystery.

I rang their bells, smelled
their smells, found too many
monks attractive. Their grounds
overwhelm the senses
with such tightly controlled
forms of beauty: thick bamboo
groves, curious flowers,
a million varieties of moss.
They are about as close
to Heaven you can get
without jumping off
a cliff, I think. If only
the water in the ponds didn’t
seem so still, in certain places,
so serene, so stagnant,
such big brown eyes of
unfulfilled desires.
I would only consider
living here in a
missionary capacity.

You asked about the Ryoan-ji
temple specifically,
that famous rock garden.
This puzzled me
at first—the whole idea of
planting rocks outside
cemeteries. I had a look
for you today.
This is what I saw:
14 boulders, older
than anything built by
man. They sit on grass
medallions, surrounded by
combed white gravel. The brochure
says there are 15 boulders, but
from any seated angle just
14 are visible. Enlightenment
occurs when you can see
15, rise above
terrestrial concerns—
position, time and place—
I sat there for two hours
seeing 14 and I left
mildly frustrated.

Frustrated, that is, until
I wrote the word
‘frustrated,’ for you,
Emily, up there. Then I saw
my 15th boulder, yes, just then.
The word ‘frustrated’ put
the whole thing in
a Zen perspective: it is love.
Love is the one concern
I do find difficult
to rise above…

Friday, October 15, 2010

Invisible Ink

For Gavin

According to The Telegraph
September 21st, 2010—
in World War I, a lad
at London University learned
semen makes excellent ink for
secret messages: seminal
fluids don’t react to iodine
vapor, the standard chemical
tests, and gentlemen—spies,
prisoners, lovers—always
have access to fresh supplies—
fresh being the operative
word. Spunk can’t be stored
in the field very conveniently:
it quickly starts to stink,
giving the army away. If this
emboldened our boy to jack-
off in his lab and start
scribbling, the article didn’t say.
Nor did it reveal his name.
I suspect this fellow wrote
poetry in his spare time.

I remembered all this
this morning, reading about
your new tattoos. I pictured you—
beautifully bareback—
just yesterday, facedown,
under a hot, bright lamp,
a needle buzzing, you wincing a
bit, maybe, sipping a warm
bottle of disgusting beer—
as Circle, the artist,
inscribed a pachyderm
prancing proudly on your arm.
I also pictured myself
next month—biting
a pillow—my mouth full of
goose down. I wonder
what kind of marks your
teeth will leave on my
pale shoulders? What secret
messages—what poetry—
will you pick up your
pen to write? And how
will I feel afterwards,

when I can read your thoughts?
Will I regret that night?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Difference

For Gavin

Our spasms of orgasm past,
Your cock slips slowly from my ass,
Dribbling a little lube and cum,
Laying its head on my scrotum—
To catch his breath, evaluate
What happens next: fuck or mate?

Nude, or naked, in a bed
I have messed up inside my head,
The question now occurs to me—
Fuck or mate? It’s actually
A silly question, is it not?
Love or sex, our wads are shot.

Resting on me like a kiss,
I wonder what the difference is.
The tablespoon of sperm beneath
My belly says, so I believe,
It’s biological between us—
Animal. That’s all. My penis

Nods—he agrees. My dick agrees
With everyone. Each passing breeze
Excites him. But I can’t ignore
Love’s vast complexity—how warm
I feel inside. There I get stuck:
Animals mate. I want to fuck.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Red Eye

For Gavin

Your e-mail says the alcohol
Left you tipsier than usual:
It’s made me kind of sad. Beer
Can have that odd effect. It’s weird.

We’re both a bit hammered, unfit
To operate a car, forklift,
Or hearse. Whatever. So we drink
More as we attempt to shrink

Great distances to cans and glasses.
Later, as the Pacific passes,
We yawn, we burp, get up to pee,
Look down. Back to square one. Why me?

I hear a plane descend the sky
Above La Guardia. I try
To sleep. I can’t. I masturbate—
Shoot twice. No help. It’s four. Too late

To call. I drift off to a dream,
A flight domestic in its theme.
I see a man stand at a door,
Searching for keys. On the floor

Luggage: one heavy bag, one light.
He finds his keys. (Pants pocket, right.)
I hear a massive deadbolt click.
Me, I am lying on my stomach,

Naked, warm, my legs a “V,”
And hard again—evidently
Quite delighted he is here.
I pull the covers from my rear,

Eyes closed. I feel him slip a hand,
Between my cheeks. You understand,
It’s really you. That’s why I groan,
“Better late than never, prick.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

How to Live Long and Prosper

For Gavin

Around the time that you were leaving school
For porn, I was starting to teach myself
How to suppress my emotions—not
My love of boys—just fooling with a few

Survival techniques picked up on TV
From Mr. Spock. He taught me how to live—
Half-human, pointy-eared—with aliens
I could never hope to understand.

The blue veins in my arms let me pretend
My blood was copper-based—bright green—until
I tripped down the back stairs, shattered a
Window, nearly slit my carotid artery.

I bled red all over mom. I received
Six horrible sutures beneath a sheet
Of light, scared that the lidocaine would turn
My rubbery face into a permanent mask.

My face recovered. That scar has faded.
But you can see it if you stand close
And raise my chin. You might also notice

My eyes are green. Locked inside is Spock.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Dance of Shiva

Before this world was formed, I played a role
Hitherto reserved only for darkness:
I was the void in which you poured your soul.

I am the first, the last, the beautiful
Truth—Keats’s amphora—I shall outlast
All other vessels. Nothing, that’s my role

In the great cosmic drama. I’m the whole
Of time itself set spinning by your presence.
I was the void in which you poured your soul

So long ago—before a god could hold
A paltry thing like man and love him as
His equal. Let’s give warmth a larger role

In this new universe. Space was so cold,
So lifeless, dark and empty in the past.
I was the void in which you poured your soul—

The mouth, the Milky Way, the gloryhole—
Ten thousand other gods have used. But that’s
The past. I am nothing again: my role
Tonight is infinite. Come fill my soul.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pan and Poet

After Yeats

A sudden violent seizure: from behind,
The pitiless priapic scent of goat
Thrust in so deeply that it stabbed my mind.
Grunting, hairy, hard, around my throat

A filthy human bicep bulged—crushed
My trachea. We tumbled in the mud,
Joined at the hip, man and myth, in a rush
Of terrible ferocity. The blood,

The brutal music Pan abandoned there,
Did not depart with those receding hoof
Prints in the woods. This was just our first

Real encounter. Matted in my hair

One animal remained. And, with a shove,
Forced me to couple, crying, with the earth.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Red Eft

I felt his heartbeat flutter as we rose
Above the leaf mold on the forest floor,
Half-way to Heaven for him, I suppose,
Where no salamander’s gone before.

I held him in my hand, eye-level. He
Lifted a frail, florescent, three-toed foot,
But hestitated going forward. We
Would meet as equals—on his terms. He put

His scarlet foot down gently on my palm.
I hardly felt the pressure—like a kiss
Leaves on your head when dreaming—calm,
Cool, amphibian—one that persists

After the thin film of moisture dries.
This is the imprint love leaves on the skies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mata Hari

Mon cher—forgive me if I am a little vague on dates,
but by the time I lay back on my pillow, I was already welcoming our appointed hour:
the shabby shows of justice, the firing squads, disgrace—death—these tedious old fools
no longer concern me. I accept their flowers with grace, but their predictable, impotent, palsied advances I dismiss.

What is this music
Stuck in my head
And who is this beauty,
The lady in red?

Consider this, my dear, while you’re inspecting my—how delicately can I put this—my credentials.
Invite the doctors in. As witnesses. I am not the green, unsifted girl I used to be.
If the cold hand of science—the sight of pale thighs in a speculum—sent shivers down her spine,
be kind enough to note that this reflex belongs to the past, not to me.

Perhaps it’s the whiskey
Just gone to my head.
She looks like this girl
I once took to bed.

Come to my dressing room after the performance. I shall leave instructions.
All will be arranged: my hair, the divan, and luxurious sensations—like limitless power.
Come to the stage door and knock three times. The porter, Patrice, will admit you.
Marie will take your coat and hat. The nation is waiting, cherie. You have

but to knock,
and enter.
I shall be there.

Her lips were sweet as honey,
Her eyes looked more like lead:
As icy as Pluto, so
Distant, dark, and dead.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Five Months

The last time it was sunny was the first
full day we spent together in Japan.
It started with a cigarette, a burst
of flame, a yellow lighter, your right hand.

Another puff at Denny’s. Maybe two
o’clock we stopped to read a sign inside
Shinjuku Park: “shin” meaning “new.”
I pointed to the character with pride.

You laughed. The cherry blossoms were not gone:
beneath those black, twisted boughs there lay
these soggy little pastel piles. How long
they looked like crumpled Kleenex, I can’t say.

To me, that afternoon seems like the last
nice day on Earth. It’s been so overcast.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Magnetic Fields

A snowflake falls,
a dick flops out,
across the globe
the headlines shout

about hot weather.
Let it come.
Right now I hold
a chilly bum.

My compass spins.
You do not speak.
You seem to wink.
I kiss each cheek.

These data points
remove all doubt:
The Northern lights
shine in the South.

The huskies pant,
the sled we ride
glides through the wastes
where love resides:

magnetic fields,
electric folds,
which congregate
beneath our poles.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nude at Noon

The waves too feeble for a surf,
We half consider going home,
Filling the gulls with cries of mirth
Hovering above the foam

Rolling slowly down the beach.
You hold your hand up for some shade,
Watching someone eat a peach,
As if he held an ass made

In Heaven: juicy, ripe and sweet.
“I wish we brought some fruit,” you say,
“And an umbrella.” I repeat,
“Some fruit.” I pitch a peach your way.

You catch it as a mermaid catches
A naked swimmer: with a kiss,
Pearl necklaces and emerald flashes,
Mingling her salty mouth with his.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Memorial to a Chicken

It really makes no difference to me now,
What kind of instruments go in, or how

The stuffings left inside your bony carcass
Are secretly consumed in hours of darkness.

When I go spelunking with a spoon
And crack a rib or two for lack of room

Maneuvering into the cavity
Which held your heart, don’t complain to me:

Consider the condition of your head,
Had I picked up my shovel, dear, instead.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I see them as a system: counterweights
Hidden in a wooden window frame
Long painted shut, where a ghostly face
Grins and grimaces. It’s not the same

Face for you, but you will recognize
The basic features: the squashed, greasy nose
Print left on the pane, the two crossed eyes,
The pink tip of a tongue, thrust so close

Against the surface, you can almost taste
The cold—that lingering ammonia
Zing. It never quite evaporates—
That tangy flavor. Blue. Millennia

From now, I bet, whatever lights glide past,
Memories taste sharp like that. Clean glass.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The President

For T.N.
After Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the citizens
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the democrats,
And the republicans outgrabe.

“Beware of governments, my son!
They bite: they tax, they spend, they bitch
If you complain. Before they’re done,
We’ll all sleep in a ditch!”

A mashie niblick in my hand,
Long time the loathsome foe I sought—
So rested me by a Palin tree,
And stood a while in thought.

As in Alaskan thought I stood,
The President, with eyes of flame,
Came putting at me through the woods—
What a grotesque golf game!

One, two! One, two! What could he do
Against my mashie? Zilch. Talk smack.
His polls fell like a lead balloon,
The Hindenburg, in fact.

“His head was full of hydrogen,”
Dad said. “Come to my arms, my boy!
O frabjous day! Si, se puede!”
We chortled in our joy.

’Twas brillig, and the citizens
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the democrats,
And the republicans outgrabe.

Family Reunion

For J.N.

My dad is going deaf. He always was
A little hard of hearing. A drillpress
Drilling through your ears, some hearing loss
Is normal. “Can I help?” “Sure, I guess.”

My father picks up my backpack. His hands,
Though just as large as I remember them,
Seem, somehow, different. Softer. He stands
Stooped. Semi-retired. Sixty-seven

Now. I’ve flown home for a funeral.
When I last saw him he was forty-five,
So untalkative, so uncomfortable
With what I said. Seeing him alive,

Trying so hard, leaves me wondering
How I can help him carry that huge thing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fuck You

Whenever I seem to look at my hands,
I single out a finger to be kissed:
The middle one—the longest one. It stands
Apart, like love, when I make a fist.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


My mother grabbed one of my swinging feet,
sighing, “Will you hold still?” I complied
reluctantly. I sat in the loveseat

watching a white tornado whirl outside.
The shadow of a snowplow thundered past,
rattling things so violently, worldwide

collapse seemed imminent. Her great glass
swan—usually so calm, so cool, so blue—
tinkled on the end table til the last

of the Apocalypse subsided. “You
aren’t going anywhere—except upstairs—
if you do not sit still.” What could I do?

I handed my foot over as one shares
a Klondike Bar: with resignation, like I chose
to cut my joy in half, accept her cares.

I look down at her hair. I suppose,
I would have run out barefoot then if Mom
held me less firmly. When I curl my toes,

she straightens them, her fingers hard and warm.
She wrestles with boot zippers as you see
men wrestling at an alligator farm.

Blizzards are like lizards, seems to me,
cold-blooded things, all teeth and tails. The way
the wind just flops around so stupidly

is purely reptile. Not mom. I would pay
to see Tyrannosaurus going toe
to toe against her spatula today.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Poor Marie

Poor Marie, Poor Antoinette,
Do you suppose, when the guillotine fell,
She was surprised? You bet.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Furnace

Buried in the heart of every house
I’ve ever lived lie furnaces. Remote
creatures. In the summer months, their mouths

gape at us through grilles and grates. They note
our comings and our goings like inmates
in an asylum. Apparitions float

before them: volleyballs, paper plates,
Italian sausage, chicken thighs, white
wine, sunburn, Bactine. The furnace waits

in icy silence, longing for the night
the frost arrives—the season of the cough—
when thermostats are turned toward the right.

That is when the fun begins: a moth
flits upward from the basement, eyes aflame,
surprised it’s burning, as its wings drop off.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Words as Birds

Here you are, and here am I,
Divided by so many miles.
Across the space between us fly
A flock of words. They are not birds,
These words. At least they try.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The People of Pompeii

How vigorous their bodies still appear,
How beautiful. How the volcanic ash
Freezes, softens, then erases fear,
Like snow. They’re running for their lives: their last

Meals still digesting, still flexing muscle,
Still fending off bacteria, as if
All this activity was quite normal.
Pompeian life continues: fountains lift

Sparkling water up toward the sky,
Naughty boys chalk penises on walls,
Slaves hold cosmetic mirrors, dishes dry.
Perhaps a bowl left on a table calls

A hungry fruit fly down, his greedy eyes
Full of figs the air will fossilize.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


For you and I, it’s theoretical
Right now. I’m writing, you are reading this.
Unless I’m much mistaken. Possible—
But still—highly unlikely. I exist,

You exist, this ink exists, we are
A product of the squiggles on this page.
This is a Birth Certificate. Bizzare
As that sounds, there it is. Go and rage

Against me down at City Hall, go change
Your name, call in the army or police:
I tell the truth. If you find it strange,
Your opinion doesn’t matter in the least.

I might have written Death Certificate
Up there. I gave you life. Enjoy it.

The General

Appalled by all the savages abroad,
They found a race of sheep to rule at home;
They give the fleecing of their flocks much thought,
Needing togas for their parties. Rome

Provides a tailor-made example: men
And women with this ancient fashion sense
Fill the legislature. What they spend
On orgies! Their political events

End in cries—More circuses, more bread!
Let us see our neighbors being stripped
Naked—defiled! So much for Rome. You’re dead.
My armies are alive. We are equipped.

We pass through every river, like a test:
The Delaware or Rubicon? Guess.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


It is the language of the universe,
the A and Ω of our tongues,
we take in mathematics as we nurse,
it reduces us to tears, to thumbs,

to fingers, toes, that all we count upon.
Our knowledge first is basic, little sparks;
but very soon we’re dancing round the sun,
sizing up each other’s private parts.

The disco ball obeys its rules, the bomb
bows down before it like a vassal king,
math monitors the heartbeat in the womb,
it stands behind each pendulum, each swing,

each note of music throbbing overhead,
when all our other languages are dead.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Going to Bed

Some lines of Auden bouncing in my head,
Before I climb in, I shut off the light.
I become invisible. And my bed
Feels cool and empty—temperature just right.

I like it cold. The emptiness means peace—
No fumbling with faces, no bad breath,
No silent, secret wars for space, for sheets.
The pleasures of oblivion. Death

Is easier to contemplate than life.
Death is the ideal—the perfect State.
Everyone is equal. Man and wife,
Gay and straight, black and white, we mate

Forever. We grow fonder of the food
As time goes by. When dirt is passed around,
We say we love it: how nutritious—good
For bones and teeth. Minerals abound.

If stars are somewhat rarer overhead,
Nobody misses them. Now that they’re gone,
Dark is distributed among the dead
More efficiently. Pack up the sun—

There’s nothing left to see: no cosmic dust,
No cakes with little candles, no Zippos,
No supernovas. Light’s too dangerous
A toy to play with anyway. Shadows

Suggest a world where different rules apply:
Where monsters lurk, where so much is unknown,
Where we could be so happy, we could die
Exploring what is out there. All alone.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Preface to A Life

‘Fair seed time had my soul. Then I grew up.’
—William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I

Part I.

I have a dirty secret to disclose
Before we start here. Can I be candid?
This isn’t the profession that I chose.
I’m no poet. I don’t understand it.
Like any child, I dreamed of writing prose:
My box of cereal, The Daily Planet,
Proust—they spoke to me. And poetry—
It seems a rotten way to treat a tree.

Your poet only has three subjects: love,
Despair and death. Maybe the odd flower.
My numbers here are estimates. And rough.
I have just drawn zero for an hour
Which seemed like an Eternity—enough
Time to admit the limits of my power:
The Muses call me, but I cannot sing.
Sure, I can give you Shakespeare, gargling,

That’s simple: he is in this huge bathroom,
A Dixie cup in hand, an inch of Scope
Bubbling in his throat. Scope, I presume,
Not Listerine, which kills bacteria, Hope,
You, and me, and everything—ka-boom!
William was hygienic—not a dope.
I once was his—let’s just call me a guest—
Since I was underage and such a pest.

My own facilities are less extensive:
I’ve got the standard toilet, white, a small
Bathtub, a sink. Talcum powder gives
My place a pale, late Roman air. Each fall
That fragile autumn light, for which I live,
Will form a golden window on the wall
Right above those faucets—there. I’m sorry
Faucets don’t figure larger in my story,

But try to let your mind fill in these gaps.
Use whatever odds and ends you wish:
Your own experiences, marbles, maps,
A plum stone glistening in a glass dish,
Your favorite pair of underwear—those chaps—
Leftovers from the rodeo in Bliss.
A big bermuda onion. I don’t know.
Something should suggest itself. Let go.

Daydreaming is a thing I like to do
When I have these imaginary needs.
Most authors have a strategy or two.
John Milton summoned scrolls, papyrus reeds,
Imported at great expense from the past. It’s true,
Lord Byron also dabbled in some deeds
Of great Antiquity—at least on paper.
My own involvement in that curious caper

Consisted of a week in Italy,
Spent cruising, boozing, having the want ads
Read to me over oranges and coffee.
“Now, here’s one,” Byron said, “Do you drive cabs?
Have abs? Do you crave immortality?
I’m looking for an epic hero, lads:
If you are muscular, can swim, or fly,
Reply by photograph—and don’t be shy!”

His Lordship cut the ad out with a smile
I do not have the skills to recreate.
I had been out of work for a long while,
And since great beauty seems to be my Fate,
I did not add his clipping to the pile
Of orange peels I placed beside my plate.
I glanced down at my boxers on the floor.
I always knew I’d be a hero, or

A star, somebody special. Back in school
I did some modeling for extra money.
The teacher had me stand on a barstool
And said, “Pretend you are Apollo.” He—
I have to say I felt like quite a fool:
Apollo’s nowhere near as hot as me.
But they were paying people cash—ten dollars
An hour. I pretended. Students, scholars,

Each sat stiffly at his flimsy easel
While teacher twinkled, orbiting the class.
Boys glared at me, like I embodied Evil,
As if I were one huge, malignant mass
Of muscle. All except this one guy—Steve—I’ll
Call him. His mouth just opened wider as
I began, quite slowly, to undress…
Excuse this small diversion. I digress.

Part II.

I have a feeling gaping mouths are not
The most propitious places to begin
A work of Art—but I am in a spot—
A god—Apollo. Can’t I be forgiven?
You work with the materials you’ve got.
And when you have a bunch of gifts from Heaven—
Nice teeth like these, luxurious, long hair
That bounces beautifully—you want to share.

Although I’d never send a guy to Hell
For praising his own features in this way,
Not everyone up here’s so wonderful—
So I’d be careful with that resume.
Among my peers on Mount Olympus—well—
The sad divinities who now hold sway—
A somewhat jealous spirit still prevails.
Venus will extract your fingernails

If you annoy her. All I do is rhyme—
Brain a lazy reader with my lyre.
I used to pass out plagues for a good time.
I lent my son the Chariot of Fire,
He incinerated Persia. I’m
Sorry for that. Kids. Our laws require
Celestial beings to be licensed now,
For all light vehicles—from crane to cow.

Modes of transport differ. Even here,
In Heaven, we find harmony elusive.
Although each god has been assigned a sphere
Of influence, gods can be reclusive—
Some would prefer we didn’t interfere
In Man’s affairs. Some turn red, abusive,
Chanting, “Blah, blah, blah—not anymore—
Just look what happened with the Trojan War!”

Let Homer dwell upon that dismal plain
Where Troy once stood—that heap of stones and ash—
Her towers toppled, all those horses slain:
Life goes on. We’ll follow Aeneas
From Ilium, to Carthage, on again—
To Italy—Virgil’s Aenied. That was fast:
Aeneas left the cinders of his home
And one of his descendants founded Rome.

His wife near death, dad hoisted on his back,
His son, Ascanius, clutching his right hand,
‘Mid smoke and flames—and that spine splintering crack—
I watched Aeneas assembling a band
Of refugees—still reeling from attack—
Astonished, terrified, and angry—and
I was amazed: away these people stole,
With only life—Existence—as a goal.

Now, there’s a man I could work wonders with.
When the moment for departures came,
I joined the Trojan forces. I exist
Now thanks to them: Apollo. Same name, same
Athletic youth I always was—no myth:
Some gods are good at the survival game.
Since Rome was destined to devour Greece,
I felt that Heaven ought to get a piece.

I chose Olympus, naturally, and we
Crowned Jove with victory. And Zeus, poor dear,
Our late, lamented chief has been—you’ll see.
It can be odd to be a god. One year
You’re Lord of Lightning—next you’re History—
A bunny nobody would ever fear,
Banging a drum for better batteries.
As you can tell, I am not one of these.

I am the god of Prophecy. That’s why
I tend to show up on the winning side—
Even when the contest is a tie.
You can’t prevent the turning of the tide—
Although you are at liberty to try.
The last time that I saw the Moon defied,
I heard my sister sigh, and with a shrug,
She crushed this kid’s sandcastle like a bug.

Diana’s rather moody, for a rock,
A maiden prone to madness. Take the rage
She showed Actaeon—that bewildered buck
Who stumbled on a sliver of her image
Floating in a pond: it always struck
Me as severe—given his young age.
She sent a pack of hounds to chat with him:
They ripped the lad apart—limb from limb.

The birds still speak of him, so do the trees,
“O, Actaeon! Transformed from man to deer,
And then—a frightened fragrance on the breeze.”
You may have sympathy—but let’s be clear:
My sister does exactly what she please—
She’s not—what is the phrase—not in your sphere.
We all have boundaries that we must obey.
Perhaps one day we won’t. It’s hard to say.

But when we don’t, I’ll tell you. At Delphi,
Cumae—wherever strange events occur—
I’ll dress up as a lady, for a fee,
And murmur things to kings about your Future—
Things inconsequential, friends, to me—
Since Mars, remember, is our god of War.
I’m Archery, Arts, Medicine, the Sun.
I am in charge of germs. And hydrogen.

Making music is my main concern;
The Fate of you, your pets, your family,
The gases Pompeiians give off when they burn,
Their density, volume, toxicity,
How many embers children can inurn,
Are governed by a different Agency.
A different Deity—I should say,
Since we are all Olympians today.

Except for him. I do not count that child—
Cupid—mixing milk in with his wine.
“Pray, Bacchus, see his empty skull is filled
With burgundy—with visions so divine
He thinks he’s God Almighty.” Love has killed
More than one mortal trying to combine
The forces which set God and Man apart.
Our differences aren’t subtle. People fart.

We do not. And we look better in
A leopard, dancing, tearing off your head,
Your legs, an arm, whatever is virgin,
Or available. Somewhere I have read
Men taste more like pork than roast chicken.
Not that it really matters. I’m in bed
Most evenings well before ten o’clock—
Long before the clubs begin to rock.

I am an early riser. Homicide
I find a bit disgusting. There’s no rush,
No thrill in killing. It is hard to hide
From Jove—The Thunderer. I still will blush
When I remember how I almost died
One morning. Suddenly, no warning—Whoosh!
I happened to be hunting for my sister:
How narrowly that arrow missed her!

T’was then, I think, I entered Medicine.
“First, do no harm,” I say, with emphasis.
You can thank me for aspirin, Ambien,
Peroxide, dentures, and Q-Tips. And this:
This box of Trojans—in gold foil—just in
Case anyone should try to force a kiss.
Humanity will do that. Sometimes,
Men are deaf to Reason. Even rhymes.

You are exceptional. Don’t get me wrong—
I love humanity. I love the lark.
I add a pinch of brilliance to his song
Each dawn—when half the planet’s in the dark—
When Vulcan’s snoring in his forge among
Computer guts and cannons—it’s a perk.
We’ll share a Milky Way on Sunday nights,
Admiring you, and all your satellites.

I had Vulcan make the crystal ball
I gave Cassandra—Cassie. Pretty girl.
She hated my prophetic gift. She’d call
It cursed—called me despicable. She’d hurl
That innocent glass globe against a wall:
The silly thing thought she could change the world
By shattering it! Imagine her despair
When it bounced back and hit her. How unfair!

Part III.

I wonder if I’m cruel enough to be
Convincing as Apollo? I don’t know.
I was born in Buffalo, you see,
The Town of Tonawanda—land of snow—
A rusty suburb of Reality.
We manufactured autos, long ago.
Nothing much goes on here anymore.
Luckily, our taverns close at four.

Here, Mendelssohn wed Edwin to Kathleen
Around the time of my conception in
A battered Skylark. Dad was a Marine,
Lance Corporal. Loyal, like most Marlboro Men,
They say he shot a cigarette machine
On Okinawa, from frustration, when
A pack of twenty Camels tumbled out.
Yet, I never saw him smoke. Or shout.

Mom insisted that he switch to snuff
When I arrived. They slowly separated, and
I only knew my father long enough
To miss him really—hold his massive hand.
The debts he left made life extremely tough.
Some kids need discipline, you understand.
Mom did her best. She did not spare the rod—
Her special spatula—the Wrath of God.

That spatula and I, we still survive.
We pass strange things along in my family.
Ghost stories, mostly. Like who dropped the knife
(This bayonet—my father’s legacy)
Down the laundry chute. It’s my belief—
And here my mother and I disagree—
The thing was cruddy. And so down it slid.
It needed washing. That’s what mothers did.

I brushed my teeth and I was sent to bed
Early that night. That sort of shocked me, too.
I’m sure that in my Future you saw red—
A bloody end, involving scarlet dew-
Drops, total melodrama. No. Mom said,
“Do you know how I got this big boo-boo?”
I nodded very meekly—in this style—
And pointed sadly at my brother, Kyle.

“Man hands on misery to man,” of course,
Nothing could be easier than THAT.
Happiness is harder, and a source
Of great perplexity to poets—at
Least those creeps who scatter metaphors,
Like tears, across each page, without éclat,
Éclairs, or anything more pleasant. I
Sincerely hope I am not such a guy.

My mother heaved the huge, eye-rolling sigh
She usually saved for The Three Stooges.
Despite my innocence, and cuteness, I
Was tucked in tightly. Kyle burped brown juices
On his bib, not quite comprehending why.
To this day, that wicked child refuses
To admit anything—though he can talk.
And walk. He’s even lost his taste for chalk.

Well, before I fix him, it is clear
We need to straighten out this dialogue.
Now, what were we discussing? Proust? Shakespeare—
He once permitted me to walk his dog
When I came over. It was pretty weird:
My mind filled up with music, then a fog,
This mist precipitated in my eyes—
I thought it was just raining. Big surprise:

I was back in the old neighborhood;
And Heaven only knows how I got there.
We moved a lot. But I was pretty good
At climbing out of trouble. My highchair
Proved to be a problem though. I could
Not master gravity. Perhaps the air
Malfunctioned. Or my wings. At least I tried.
I cracked my cranium, and cried, and cried.

God, curiosity must be the bane
Of my existence. Take this incident:
A bawling baby with a bit of brain
Exposed. Was this a portent, or the dent
Death left inside my consciousness? For pain
I got kisses, not the monument
I wanted, carved in marble: TRAGEDY.
I need to work more on my savagery.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Necessary Lies

Beneath what we find necessary lies
A world of things that we could live without:
Alarm clocks, canned asparagus, flies,
Venereal diseases, death and doubt.

The scent of certain strangers, I could lose.
I’d execute my neighbor’s yippy dog,
My neighbor—all my neighbors—who refuse
To pick up poo. There is a catalogue

Of ships in Homer’s Iliad, Book II,
I am just itching to eliminate:
Let Helen rot. Yes, love, even you,
When you do something that I really hate,

I think about eliminating. But
I usually just slam a few things shut.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


They were not born nuclear mutants,
Ants the size of houses, creaking, shrieking,
Causing Americans to flee, pants
Damp, soiled, on fire. I wasn’t seeking

Them: that insect, sinister pronoun,
A word with huge antennas hung from wires
Loping around a large Hollywood sound-
Stage in the 1950s. My desires

Were different. I was different. They
Would not exist as insects—large or small.
But there they were, these larval lumps of clay,
Darting between their parents at the Mall.

They seem okay as kids. But let us see
If they mature into a Them. Or we.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


They are so hard to catch. These things defy
The laws of physics. Rising from champagne
Flutes, from orchestras, they even fly,
Laughing, from small children. They contain

No real meaning. Bubbles are absurd
Symbolic structures anyone can make
Cheaply from diluted soap. A word
Could not possess less value. If you break

A bubble nothing happens. They don’t curse
Or go upsetting seismographs. The skin
Detects a little something—mist—at worst—
A highly localized cloud burst. But in

Some atomic way, all these events
Lead back to a Big Bang. If that makes sense.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Illiterati

Confusion is their color, shades of gray
Surround all acts, like ripples in a pond;
They stay away from definitions—they
Make such demanding wives. Black and blond,

Or bald, or clown-like, frizzy Marxist red,
Their heads are full of slogans: War is bad,
Love good, but Sex is better.
Come to bed.
Come now. Come fuck a real creative lad.

No answer. Why? For someone with so much
Love to give, rejection seems unfair.
I touch you and so little seems to gush
From you but your intestines. Sad. We share

So much in common—dreams and DNA.
The difference is just poetry, I’d say.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Alien

I explore the galaxy,
I plant my flag, I am a man
People like to giggle at:
I am an alien. The land

I represent is English—
I mean, American, scion
Of British, a barbaric tongue,
Part Indo-European.

I mostly pick up postcards,
Tattoos and tans for souvenirs;
But if you come equipped with hands
Capable of holding beers

I will buy us a few drinks—
Enough to get us both somewhere
Else: my ship, Andromeda,
Uranus, home. My secret lair.


Searching in my pockets, I produce:
A single linty stick of cinnamon
Dentine, some change, a cell phone number—whose—
Who knows? It’s yours. I have lost a button.

My fingers smell like cinnamon, the change
Amounts to eighty-seven cents—thirteen
Cents shy of one whole dollar. What a strange
Taste those missing pennies give Dentine.

I take my pants off, turn the pockets out,
I shake them by the legs, up and down:
Nothing else drops out. I want to shout:
Where is that button! Then I turn around

To find you naked, groaning, close to tears—
Because I hold my pants like rabbit ears.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


It sits beside a sad geranium,
The brown remains of my best friend, a fern,
A plastic pot his mausoleum.
I’ll miss our talks. Our walks. The way he’d turn

Into a human, suddenly, and cry,
You’re crazy! I’m a fucking fern! A plant!
We can’t keep having these discussions! I
Refuse! Please, put me down this instant!

What do I do with him? A yellow flock
Of leaves falls from the trees. We stand outside.
Neighbors have lined up around the block
To pay their last respects. I can’t decide

If I should dump him out and keep the pot.
Are ferns recyclable? Are friends? Guess not.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The stars have lost their point,
Their purpose and their powers,
The time is out of joint,
We are expecting showers.

I look up at the sky,
Some droplets fall on me.
I see a plane pass by.
Planes aren’t much company.

Just people going places.
Just where we cannot say:
The taillights—all their traces—
The rain has washed away.

Perpetual Motion

Perpetual motion is still a dream
Pursued by kooks, mad scientists and crooks—
The statesmen of Utopia: a machine
So natural they paint it green. It looks

So good on paper: dark panels unfold
To soak up sun, windmills whirl, and Friction—
The great galactic menace—shivers, cold,
Imprisoned in a cell—in science fiction.

Nothing nuclear, like entropy,
Seems to appear in government designs;
Nor do too many numbers, I can see,
Besides those taxes, surtaxes and fines

We pay to keep Utopia painted
Green, gears greased, politicians sainted.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Certain Names

We cling to them for luck, certain names,
We mutter to the air, iron and clay,
We hope they will protect our homes from flames
Consuming other houses. Every day

We sacrifice good books to them, like goats,
We sentence little doubts to copper mines,
We shake our tambourines, we dance—slit throats—
We lay our minds, like corpses, at their shrines.

Even the iconoclast. The last
Man you might expect to form a cult,
Can flood the streets with fools ready to blast
Themselves to bits in temples. The result:

More misery, more blood, more martyrs, more
Temples raised to him. This is war.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Colossal flops they can be; and most are
Either bumblers, abusers, or tyrants—
Men and women—huddled around a star
Of zero consequence. These are the giants

Which populate our fables: the nightmare
Titans we wrestle with, gods of such power
We name planets after them. They care
Nothing for what they crush—dream or flower.

The few attempting human form fail
Spectacularly. I have photographs.
Mom sits there in the sea filling a pail
With sand. Here, a lost thumb eclipses mass-

Ive mountains—ridges—off in the distance.
The thumb is dad’s. It has his fingerprints.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thank you

Takaaki, I just love these boxer shorts:
My balls are big so they bounce easier
When dancing now and a hard-on distorts
The fabric. Breezier—not sleazier—

Than those tight briefs I’m used to wearing,
They ride two inches lower on my hips.
My mother tells me that I am sharing
My ass with everyone. The waistband slips.

I tell her Newton will not be denied
His little apple. If that fruit is me—
Who am I to argue? I take pride
In all the interest which gravity

Shows in my bum—electricity, too—
Each force in nature binding me to you.


I used to travel more than I do now—
Take trips, take pictures, take the long way home.
It seems the times have changed my schedule. How

Did I lose flexibility—allow
My legs to lose their muscle—turn to bone?
I wonder what my skeleton does now?

A backpack always bumping my elbow,
Through forests, foreign cities, we would roam.
I know there is a world out there. But how

Many sandwiches to pack? You know
If you’ll be coming? Will I dine alone?
Answering this question’s harder now.

So much depends upon the weather. Show
Me a barometer. Should we postpone
Our trip until a better day? How

Would we recognize it? Lack of snow?
No rain? No clouds? That is the great unknown.
The sky is full of emptiness right now:
Just mercury is falling. Fast. And how.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ars Poetica

A poet’s feet can be disgusting things.
I see them at the gym: hairy, bent,
Arthritic sets of bones, adorned with rings
To make each toe look sexier. Their scent

Defies description. While Limburger cheese
Left ripening a bit too long comes close—
A yeast infection closer—even these
Analogies fall short. I hold my nose.

I ask in a squeaky voice, “Why scatter warts,
Instead of rose petals, in the shower?
What kind of gift’s a wart? None. The worst.
A waste of talent and abuse of power.

Give one good reason why your words exist—
Or stop writing. See a podiatrist.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Heart of the World

I have adapted a song from John Gay’s Beggars Opera today. It should probably be sung as a round.

Gay’s song, The modes of the court so common are grown, is based on a 17th Century English air, Lilliburlero, by Henry Purcell. It’s k
ind of catchy, I think.

The Heart of the World
(Sung to the tune of Lilliburlero, an English air)

The heart of the world so stony has grown,
I’ve dated pawnbrokers who feel more regret.
Love is like interest charged on a loan
Which Cupid can neither forgive nor forget.
It’s true, you may find
A person more kind,
Who knows the right night twelve roses to send:
He’ll sack you a city,
He’ll plunder with pity,

If lucky he’ll fuck you from end to end.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Cloud

Feeling a little bit blue and a lot tired since my trip to Japan

[Did I mention to the reader that I was going to Japan? Probably not. I had a wonderful time. It was lovely to see Takaaki and spend two weeks with him. He is not sure what to make of the 26 page poem I wrote about him. I think he might be embarrassed I love him so much. Tough cheese, I say. C’est la vie.]

I have been spending the last few evenings at home watching
Doctor Who. There is an episode in Season 4 where The Doctor’s arch-nemesis, the Daleks, abduct the Earth and several other planets (including Adipose III) in order to use them to power a great engine which will extinguish all light—all life—in this universe—and all dimensions beyond. All life, that is, except the Daleks, who will reign in the ensuing darkness supreme.

Of course, the Doctor manages to defeat the Daleks—or, maybe, set-back the Daleks, since the powers of darkness are never quite defeated. The Doctor returns the Earth to its proper place in space and time, using his time machine,
The Tardis, but not before delivering the idea for a poem to me.

The alien force which follows here, in my poem, is not malevolent or intelligent: it is simply a thick cloud of interstellar gas
the solar system runs into one day—a natural disaster. Feel free to substitute your own nebulous menace, if you find mine inadequate. These are relatively abundant in the Cosmos, I understand: a problem for one civilization, the end of the world for another.

Isn’t that always the way?

The Nebulous Menace

Astronomers had seen it first. They could
do nothing but track it when it arrived,
eating at the constellations. Man
was not to be informed. He was. The void

grew visible—ink spilled among the stars—
with nothing there to soak it up: no
blotting paper—no salvation. God,
there goes Orion—Betelgeuse—all gone

beyond the small, bright corpuscle of Mars.
(Mars has a few more months to shine, you see.)
That's where my sister works, Bradbury
Weather Station on Olympus Mons:

counting devils in the peach twilight,
rusty, dusty devils dancing on
the edge of night. Good for asparagus
she says—the soils of Mars. She built a bed

beneath the dome she calls her home. She
harvested a hundred spears this spring—
as Jupiter went out. She didn’t know
what Earth expected her to do. To shout?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It is Written

Offered without comment.

It is Written

Why do poems die when written down?
I print a poem out, then take a pen
And make a few corrections, and the sound,
Pen scratching, comforts me. Then silence. Then

The furnace, fridge, or fan fills up the void—
Incompletely—like a radio
Masking a maniac at work—annoyed
That he must take precautions. When I go

Pick up my pen again and let it hover
Over some adoring adjective,
I am transformed from lunatic to lover
And, for a moment, poem and I live

In total harmony. Until I sever
All connection between us. Forever.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Now That I'm One-and-Forty

In keeping with the A.E. Housman theme I seem to have established between this week and last, I have updated "When I was One-and-Twenty," our founder's signature poem, for the present age.

I hope you don't mind.

Now That I’m One-And-Forty

Now that I’m one-and-forty,
I look at love this way:
As t-shirts, socks, and underwear
No longer white but gray;

I look at life like wine
Glistening in my glass,
Turning to vinegar.
Things happen now so fast.

When I was one-and-twenty,
I studied you one night;
I had a test to pass,
But failure seemed all right.

Some light fell on your shoulder,
Some fell on your cock,
Most fell on the floor.
The light came from a clock.

I watched the numbers change
From twenty-one to two;
I watched until two-forty-one,
Then fell asleep. Like you.

Monday, March 29, 2010

When I Watch The Living Meet

Not much sleep last night. When I did manage to shut my eyes for a few minutes of agitated REM, I dreamt I was 20 again, and I was living inside A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Housman.

This poem kept resounding in my head:

XII. When I watch the living meet

WHEN I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while,

If the heats of hate and lust
In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
Where my sojourn shall be long.

In the nation that is not
Nothing stands that stood before;
There revenges are forgot,
And the hater hates no more;

Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Shropshire Lad

Continuing on the A.E. Housman theme from yesterday, here is a little poem about a book I had lost and then rediscovered in Connecticut, as I was getting ready to move back to New York.

A Shropshire Lad

Digging through a damp, decaying box
Of poetry books stored in the garage,
I found the one I had been looking for
Grown rather green and moldy—an image

Which might have raised a ghostly smile beneath
The author’s clipped Victorian moustache.
How perfect Housman was the moldy one!
My only one! Lord, how we might have laughed!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Meaning Of When I Was One And Twenty

Since I have noticed a few students of English literature—from South Korea, Singapore, India, Texas, California, Tennessee, and lots of other exotic places (Hello, and thank you for dropping by!)—visiting my site and looking for the key to understanding A.E. Housman’s famous poem, "When I Was One And Twenty," the poem after which this blog is named, I thought I would provide a guide to the poem in the hopes that it might help you write your papers.


First, before we get started analyzing the poem itself, we must take care of a few preliminaries.

Let us see if we can answer a few questions about the author of the poem, Professor Alfred Edward (A.E.) Housman: who was he, when did he live, when did he die, what was he a professor of, what is
Shropshire, the location where his poems take place, and what is A Shropshire Lad, the book in which we find many of them? I will wait while you check out Wiki.

As you can see, although Shropshire is a real place, in England, a land populated by real people (for the most part), in the poetry of Professor Housman, Shropshire is also an imaginary place—a misty
Victorian region of the mind—haunted mostly by poor young men who lead very depressing, disappointing lives. Professor Housman’s Shropshire is a negative image of the gorgeous green pastoral landscape classical poets (those who wrote in Greek or Latin, like Virgil) referred to as
Arcadia. The principal difference between Arcadia and Shropshire is the mood of those places—which is another way of saying the weather.

Arcadia is nice. The temperature is always about 77 degrees Fahrenheit—in the shade. (The metric system is unheard of there.) In Arcadia, handsome, scantily clad young shepherds play Pan-pipes, nap on the grass, and have sex with wood nymphs, and sometimes with a nymphomaniac milk-maid from the village named Phyllis. If Phyllis (or her girlfriend, Chloe) is not available, or if they are feeling a little gay that day, the shepherds will often have sex with one another. This is why it is perpetually sunny in Arcadia, and why nothing gets done, and the sheep run wild. Everyone is always off getting laid. Hardly a sustainable economy, I imagine, outside of poetry.

The sad citizens of Shropshire, on the other hand, have very little sex. They spend their days in a twilight realm of unfulfilled desire drenched in rain. The people of Shropshire are perpetually plowing, complaining, dying, being sent off to other places to die, thinking about death, and communing with corpses.

I blame this on the lousy climate the poet was subjected to as a child. Professor Housman was a human being, we must remember, even though he was British. And if you are born in a cloudy land and live under a constant drizzle, some of that rain is bound to seep into your heart and drown your soul in sorrow. That is, unless you are very careful and spend a few frisky summers frolicking in the sun, somewhere in the Mediterranean, far away from home...

This is not to say that all Professor Housman ever discusses is death and disappointment in his poems. Professor Housman can be grim, but he is not The Grim Reaper
. The Grim Reaper is really a writer from St. Louis, Missouri named
T.S. Eliot. Mr. Eliot is the original skull beneath the skin, if you will, as anyone who has had the misfortune of being assigned to write a coherent paper on his hopeless poem ‘The Waste Land’ can attest.

Professor Housman has a better sense of humor than Mr. Eliot, I think. I have seen car accidents with a better sense of humor than Mr. Eliot, I think. There is much to enjoy in life besides death, you know. In his own overcast way, Housman urges us to enjoy ourselves because life is temporary, death eternal. In Professor Housman’s poems you will find lots of lovely temporary things: athletes, chairs, beer, cows, chestnut trees, and cherry blossoms. Now and then a necktie goes missing, too.

Nevertheless, we must admit, in all honesty, that Death [notice the capital D—
Et in Arcadia Ego—for all you Latin scholars out there] looms very large in Shropshire and in the imagination of Professor Housman. Perhaps it looms larger and darker in his mind than is healthy for us to contemplate for an extended period of time.

In fact, I have been advised by my doctor that it is safest to read Professor Housman in small doses only: on the subway, waiting for a bus, or sitting on the toilet. My doctor also says (he is unusually well-read for a Harvard man) it is never safe to read Mr. Eliot—under any circumstances—even in the bathroom. He says it is even more dangerous to hear Mr. Eliot read his work aloud. Like far too many writers these days, his
voice practically radiates misery.

Fortunately, for us, what poets say today does not matter in the slightest. Except for maybe me, so listen up: how you, as an individual, approach life, love or literature—tongue in cheek or with a pair of tongs—is up to you. You are the only one you have to live with for the rest of your life.

Anyway, so much for my sermon on Shropshire, the imaginary land where the poem under discussion takes place. Let us move on to "When I Was One And Twenty" itself. Here is the text. Try reading it aloud.

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

What are some of the things we notice about what we have read? The poem is short. It’s divided into three little sections, three little paragraphs (stanzas.) The third stanza is twice as long as the first two. The poem rhymes. It is kind of sing-songy, in an old-fashioned way. Some of the words are a little weird. It is mostly written in the past tense. It is narrated from the the first person—the “I”—point of view.

Anything else I missed? Impossible for me to say, since I have missed it. I depend on you here. If you discover something, pick up your pen and jot your ideas down on a piece of paper. If there is no paper available, write on your desk. If your mother is likely to complain about you vandalizing the furniture, and if you are wearing shorts, write on the top of your thigh. But be sure to take a long hot bath tonight or wear sweatpants in gym class tomorrow if you are using permanent ink. I am not responsible for your body. I am not your brain.

Let’s examine the first stanza:

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…

What do these words mean? To figure that out, let us first look at them not as lines of a poem, but as an ordinary sentence, as a single thought, by rearranging them slightly.

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, ’Give crowns and pounds and guineas but not your heart away...

Okay. The poem is a little clearer laid out like that, but still, “the crowns and pounds and guineas” thing makes no sense. Crowns and pounds and guineas are old denominations of English money. If I were writing this stanza now (I am an American, too, as you can probably tell, but more like
Mark Twain than T.S. Eliot) I might write it something like this,

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give nickels, dimes and dollars
But not your heart away...

Not much better, especially given inflation. What does all of this advice about money management and emotional planning add up to?

“Give your money away, but not your heart...”

Obviously this wise man was wise enough not to become a banker.

In the second stanza, the wise man suggests giving other things away, too: he ups the ante, to borrow a phrase from Poker—he raises the emotional bet. He advises us to keep our hearts and to give away things far more valuable than nickels, dimes and dollars:

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’

Fancy here does not mean bling-bling, or jewelry, it refers back to the heart. Fancy means affection. Fancy is another way of referring to love. He is saying give money away but not your love.

But the young man does not listen:

But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

How would you interpret the tone of that remark, ‘No use to talk to me.’? To my ears (I am fast approaching forty-two—twice the age of the lad being given the advice) it sounds sad, regretful, wistful, and disappointed. But I am one and forty, and my ears are not so good at discerning the separate sounds of sorrow as they once were. Yours are probably better. Repeat the lines once or twice. Listen for yourself. Decide what you hear for yourself.

Once you are finished deciding, we can move on to part 3 of the poem.

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;

Here we have this so-called wise man again, reminding us, again—as if we were deaf or had Alzheimer’s or amnesia or something and had forgotten what he said during the two whole seconds it took us to read his last bit of advice—that we should not be giving our hearts away. We know that already. Why is Professor Housman repeating himself?

For emphasis, sure, in case we weren’t paying attention the first time. (Professor Housman knows human nature and rarely takes those kinds of risks.) But Housman also does it because the poem we are reading is something called a ballad, a poetic song. And the repetitions are like the repeated lyrics you find in any song. In poems, repeated ideas, like rhymes, can form their own kind of music.

[Excuse me. I am wandering off into Poetry Land, the Heavenly distance. Senility must be setting in. And so early, too. I really should make a better effort to stick to the point...]

Speaking of points, and wandering off, did you notice how the poem leaves the money and the rubies behind in stanzas one and two? In stanza three (It might be useful to wonder why the money is gone now? Why are we suddenly broke?) we are dealing in a different kind of currency: emotions, hearts. You may get something if you give your heart away, but it might not be what you expect: all we have left to pay for love with now, poetically speaking, are bits of our bodies:

‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’

The plentiful sighs exhaled here may perhaps represent something Professor Housman was a little too shy to mention: sex. I am not so shy, that’s why I mention it. Or it may not. Again, this is one of those occasions where you must make a decision. What we must remember at this point in the poem is that people moan for pleasure and they moan for pain. Therefore, the sigh heaved here has a double meaning. It is the second meaning, the sadder one, which leads us to the next line:

‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’

Rue is a flower. But, more importantly, rue is also another word in English for regret. The language here is a little quirky, so like we did before, up above, let us reformulate the sentiment contained in the quatrain for ourselves.


‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’


Loving someone will

Cost something: don’t forget
A moment’s happiness
Is followed by regret.

This isn’t exactly what the wise man is saying, of course, but is my translation of it—transfiguration of it really—how I hear it, filtered through the experience of talking to old people in my early twenties. You will hear something different. We all hear poems differently. My reading is a little abstract, I admit, and my poetry not so good as Professor Housman’s, but I think you understand what I mean: according to the wise man—who just seems to grow increasingly bitter and cynical the older and wiser he gets—we are disasterously overcharged for happiness. But are we?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. I am forty-one, and I am not sure we are. Opinions vary about love and life, even among poets, even among individual poets at different stages of their lives. Even in the works of The Grim Reaper. Again, the search for happiness is one of those life-long quests we each undertake for ourselves. My own opinion is that love is not such a depressing prospect, even if it can feel like that sometimes. But then, I probably have more fun these days than Professor Housman does. I am not 151 years old and I am not actually dead yet. Actually, I am having the time of my life writing this essay for you—right here, right now—on my laptop, so perhaps my perspective on serious matters such as Life and Death and Poetry (notice the capital letters ) at the present moment are not to be entirely trusted

In any case, as we are nearing the end, we only have two lines to go, let us re-read the poem as we understand it, so far:

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;


Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.


When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’

What does this all add up to? Well, we have a narrator (possibly the young Mr. Housman, before he became a Professor, or possibly just some random twenty-one year old he picked up off the street, possibly even me—remember the poem is being written from the first person—the “I”—perspective) telling us the peculiar advice he received when he was twenty-one: give your wallet away before you give your heart. We have had him admitting he didn’t listen to that advice (“no use to talk to me”) because he was young and stupid. Then we have a summary of the money argument in more emotional terms. Now—

Now, a question just popped into my head: how do we know this wise man is so damn wise? The narrator seems to think he is a wise person, of course, but why should we? Where is the evidence? Why should we believe him? Do you believe everything people tell you? Of course not. You test what they say against your own experience. You ask around. If you are insane, you ask a poet. We only have the narrator’s word to go on that the wise man is truly wise. What has either the narrator or the wise man done to earn our trust, in other words? Bearing that thought in mind, let us add those last two crucial lines:

And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

Suddenly, and significantly, in these last two lines, everything changes—starting with the tense—we move from the past into the present.

WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…

… And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.

The key to the poem is the shift from WAS to AM, Past to Present, Then to Now—the value of Experience—and what it implies. Also listen carefully to that repeated phrase, '‘tis true, ‘tis true.' What is true exactly: the words of the wise man, or the more banal fact that lad is now 365 days older, now twenty-two? What happened during that year? What did he learn?

The clue is in the tone of that last remark: '‘tis true, ‘tis true.' It's hard to catch, that tone, but listen. The tone is very subtle, I think, and not entirely sincere. There is something slightly, ever so slightly odd, ever so slightly off about it. Here is where I see one of those little shafts of Arcadian sunlight shine through Professor Housman's
Stygian gloom. Let me explain.

The poem begins solemnly, with the premise that the twenty-one year old had been listening to a wise man’s advice about how costly love is, how painful, how much more sense it makes to give all your money away than fall in love. But the twenty-one year old does not heed the wise man’s advice—he sees himself as stupid at twenty-one (“no use to talk to me”) and he goes off on his own, screws around a bit, and runs straight into the arms of eternal Misery. Eternal Misery at twenty-two.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if this guy has no clue about life at twenty-one, why on earth would I assume (as a reader) that he is so much wiser (like the so-called wise man) at twenty-two? He might be a little bit wiser for having wasted his money on flowers and having fallen in love and then having his heart broken. That love can be incredibly painful and costly is a valuable lesson to learn. But it is not the only lesson here to learn about love.

In this poem, I think, Professor Housman is doing two things: he is making fun of himself as a vain young man and he is making fun of himself as an equally vain, slightly older, ostensibly (seemingly) wiser one. Here, he is ruefully recalling how much he thought he knew about life, but that (in retrospect, looking backwards) he realizes he really didn’t. By placing the poem in the first person, the “I” mode, he cleverly involves us in his mistakes: how he incorrectly evaluates (or ignores) the experience of others, how we incorrectly evaluate (or ignore) the experience of ourselves. No one escapes this poem unscathed. We sympathize with the narrator, we are sad for him, even as we smile at him, and shake our heads sadly (“oh, ‘tis true, tis true”) at our own sometimes silly selves.

Anyway, that is how I read this poem. That is also how I read a lot of poems, actually, the method I use: looking at the poem inside and out and evaluating how it measures up to my own experience.

Sometimes the poems fall short. Sometimes my experiences do. Sometimes the problem lies in my inablity to imagine myself in another's shoes. That is a hard thing to do, but one can get used to doing it with practice. It is a bit like learning how to hear the subtle modulations in a person's tone of voice—the truth behind the words. All it takes is imagination—something which you probably possess in abundance.

Here endeth the lesson for today.