It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.
"So Much Happiness" from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Far Corner Books.
The brow of a horse in that moment when The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough It seems to inhale the water, is holy. I refuse to explain. When the horse had gone the water in the trough, All through the empty summer, Went on reflecting clouds & stars. The horse cropping grass in a field, And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real Than the mist in one corner of the field. Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter. Members of the Committee on the Ineffable, Let me illustrate this with a story, & ask you all To rest your heads on the table, cushioned, If you wish, in your hands, &, if you want, Comforted by a small carton of milk To drink from, as you once did, long ago, When there was only a curriculum of beach grass, When the University of Flies was only a distant humming. In Romania, after the war, Stalin confiscated The horses that had been used to work the fields. "You won't need horses now," Stalin said, cupping His hand to his ear, "Can't you hear the tractors Coming in the distance? I hear them already." The crowd in the Callea Victoria listened closely But no one heard anything. In the distance There was only the faint glow of a few clouds. And the horses were led into boxcars & emerged As the dimly remembered meals of flesh That fed the starving Poles During that famine, & part of the next one-- In which even words grew thin & transparent, Like the pale wings of ants that flew Out of the oldest houses, & slowly What had been real in words began to be replaced By what was not real, by the not exactly real. "Well, not exactly, but. . ." became the preferred Administrative phrasing so that the man Standing with his hat in his hands would not guess That the phrasing of a few words had already swept The earth from beneath his feet. "That horse I had, He was more real than any angel, The housefly, when I had a house, was real too," Is what the man thought. Yet it wasn't more than a few months Before the man began to wonder, talking To himself out loud before the others, "Was the horse real? Was the house real?" An angel flew in and out of the high window In the factory where the man worked, his hands Numb with cold. He hated the window & the light Entering the window & he hated the angel. Because the angel could not be carved into meat Or dumped into the ossuary & become part Of the landfill at the edge of town, It therefore could not acquire a soul, And resembled in significance nothing more Than a light summer dress when the body has gone. The man survived because, after a while, He shut up about it. Stalin had a deep understanding of the kulaks, Their sense of marginalization & belief in the land; That is why he killed them all. Members of the Committee on Solitude, consider Our own impoverishment & the progress of that famine, In which, now, it is becoming impossible To feel anything when we contemplate the burial, Alive, in a two-hour period, of hundreds of people. Who were not clichés, who did not know they would be The illegible blank of the past that lives in each Of us, even in some guy watering his lawn On a summer night. Consider The death of Stalin & the slow, uninterrupted Evolution of the horse, a species no one, Not even Stalin, could extinguish, almost as if What could not be altered was something Noble in the look of its face, something Incapable of treachery. Then imagine, in your planning proposals, The exact moment in the future when an angel Might alight & crawl like a fly into the ear of a horse, And then, eventually, into the brain of a horse, And imagine further that the angel in the brain Of this horse is, for the horse cropping grass In the field, largely irrelevant, a mist in the corner Of the field, something that disappears, The horse thinks, when weight is passed through it, Something that will not even carry the weight Of its own father On its back, the horse decides, & so demonstrates This by swishing at a fly with its tail, by continuing To graze as the dusk comes on & almost until it is night. Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry sets, Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just Like the dust it is made of, Let's tear up our lecture notes & throw them out The window. Let's do it right now before wisdom descends upon us Like a spiderweb over a burned-out theater marquee, Because what's the use? I keep going to meetings where no one's there, And contributing to the discussion; And besides, behind the angel hissing in its mist Is a gate that leads only into another field, Another outcropping of stones & withered grass, where A horse named Sandman & a horse named Anastasia Used to stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass. Where there were outdoor concerts once, in summer, Under the missing & innumerable stars.
From Elegy by Larry Levis. Copyright © 1997 by the estate of Larry Levis. Reproduced by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.
—The Carpathian Frontier, October, 1968 —for my brother Once, in a foreign country, I was suddenly ill. I was driving south toward a large city famous For so little it had a replica, in concrete, In two-thirds scale, of the Arc de Triomphe stuck In the midst of traffic, & obstructing it. But the city was hours away, beyond the hills Shaped like the bodies of sleeping women. Often I had to slow down for herds of goats Or cattle milling on those narrow roads, & for The narrower, lost, stone streets of villages I passed through. The pains in my stomach had grown Gradually sharper & more frequent as the day Wore on, & now a fever had set up house. In the villages there wasn't much point in asking Anyone for help. In those places, where tanks Were bivouacked in shade on their way back From some routine exercise along The Danube, even food was scarce that year. And the languages shifted for no clear reason From two hard quarries of Slavic into German, Then to a shred of Latin spliced with oohs And hisses. Even when I tried the simplest phrases, The peasants passing over those uneven stones Paused just long enough to look up once, Uncomprehendingly. Then they turned Quickly away, vanishing quietly into that Moment, like bark chips whirled downriver. It was autumn. Beyond each village the wind Threw gusts of yellowing leaves across the road. The goats I passed were thin, gray; their hind legs, Caked with dried shit, seesawed along— Not even mild contempt in their expressionless, Pale eyes, & their brays like the scraping of metal. Except for one village that had a kind Of museum where I stopped to rest, & saw A dead Scythian soldier under glass, Turning to dust while holding a small sword At attention forever, there wasn't much to look at. Wind, leaves, goats, the higher passes Locked in stone, the peasants with their fate Embroidering a stillness into them, And a spell over all things in that landscape, Like . . . That was the trouble; it couldn't be Compared to anything else, not even the sleep Of some asylum at a wood's edge with the sound Of a pond's spillway beside it. But as each cramp Grew worse & lasted longer than the one before, It was hard to keep myself aloof from the threadbare World walking on that road. After all, Even as they moved, the peasants, the herds of goats And cattle, the spiralling leaves, at least were part Of that spell, that stillness. After a while, The villages grew even poorer, then thinned out, Then vanished entirely. An hour later, There were no longer even the goats, only wind, Then more & more leaves blown over the road, sometimes Covering it completely for a second. And yet, except for a random oak or some brush Writhing out of the ravine I drove beside, The trees had thinned into rock, into large, Tough blonde rosettes of fading pasture grass. Then that gave out in a bare plateau. . . . And then, Easing the Dacia down a winding grade In second gear, rounding a long, funneled curve— In a complete stillness of yellow leaves filling A wide field—like something thoughtlessly, Mistakenly erased, the road simply ended. I stopped the car. There was no wind now. I expected that, & though I was sick & lost, I wasn't afraid. I should have been afraid. To this day I don't know why I wasn't. I could hear time cease, the field quietly widen. I could feel the spreading stillness of the place Moving like something I'd witnessed as a child, Like the ancient, armored leisure of some reptile Gliding, gray-yellow, into the slightly tepid, Unidentical gray-brown stillness of the water— Something blank & unresponsive in its tough, Pimpled skin—seen only a moment, then unseen As it submerged to rest on mud, or glided just Beneath the lustreless, calm yellow leaves That clustered along a log, or floated there In broken ringlets, held by a gray froth On the opaque, unbroken surface of the pond, Which reflected nothing, no one. And then I remembered. When I was a child, our neighbors would disappear. And there wasn't a pond of crocodiles at all. And they hadn't moved. They couldn't move. They Lived in the small, fenced-off backwater Of a canal. I'd never seen them alive. They Were in still photographs taken on the Ivory Coast. I saw them only once in a studio when I was a child in a city I once loved. I was afraid until our neighbor, a photographer, Explained it all to me, explained how far Away they were, how harmless; how they were praised In rituals as "powers." But they had no "powers," He said. The next week he vanished. I thought Someone had cast a spell & that the crocodiles Swam out of the pictures on the wall & grew Silently & multiplied & then turned into Shadows resting on the banks of lakes & streams Or took the shapes of fallen logs in campgrounds In the mountains. They ate our neighbor, Mr. Hirata. They ate his whole family. That is what I believed, Then. . .that someone had cast a spell. I did not Know childhood was a spell, or that then there Had been another spell, too quiet to hear, Entering my city, entering the dust we ate. . . . No one knew it then. No one could see it, Though it spread through lawnless miles of housing tracts, And the new, bare, treeless streets; it slipped Into the vacant rows of warehouses & picked The padlocked doors of working-class bars And union halls & shuttered, empty diners. And how it clung! (forever, if one had noticed) To the brothel with the pastel tassels on the shade Of an unlit table lamp. Farther in, it feasted On the decaying light of failing shopping centers; It spilled into the older, tree-lined neighborhoods, Into warm houses, sealing itself into books Of bedtime stories read each night by fathers— The books lying open to the flat, neglected Light of dawn; & it settled like dust on windowsills Downtown, filling the smug cafés, schools, Banks, offices, taverns, gymnasiums, hotels, Newsstands, courtrooms, opium parlors, Basque Restaurants, Armenian steam baths, French bakeries, & two of the florists' shops— Their plate glass windows smashed forever. Finally it tried to infiltrate the exact Center of my city, a small square bordered With palm trees, olives, cypresses, a square Where no one gathered, not even thieves or lovers. It was a place which no longer had any purpose, But held itself aloof, I thought, the way A deaf aunt might, from opinions, styles, gossip. I liked it there. It was completely lifeless, Sad & clear in what seemed always a perfect, Windless noon. I saw it first as a child, Looking down at it from that as yet Unvandalized, makeshift studio. I remember leaning my right cheek against A striped beach ball so that Mr. Hirata— Who was Japanese, who would be sent the next week To a place called Manzanar, a detention camp Hidden in stunted pines almost above The Sierra timberline—could take my picture. I remember the way he lovingly relished Each camera angle, the unwobbling tripod, The way he checked each aperture against The light meter, in love with all things That were not accidental, & I remember The care he took when focusing; how He tried two different lens filters before He found the one appropriate for that Sensual, late, slow blush of afternoon Falling through the one broad bay window. I remember holding still & looking down Into the square because he asked me to; Because my mother & father had asked me please To obey & be patient & allow the man— Whose business was failing anyway by then— To work as long as he wished to without any Irritations or annoyances before He would have to spend these years, my father said, Far away, in snow, & without his cameras. But Mr. Hirata did not work. He played. His toys gleamed there. That much was clear to me . . . . That was the day I decided I would never work. It felt like a conversion. Play was sacred. My father waited behind us on a sofa made From car seats. One spring kept nosing through. I remember the camera opening into the light . . . . And I remember the dark after, the studio closed, The cameras stolen, slivers of glass from the smashed Bay window littering the unsanded floors, And the square below it bathed in sunlight . . . . All this Before Mr. Hirata died, months later, From complications following pneumonia. His death, a letter from a camp official said, Was purely accidental. I didn't believe it. Diseases were wise. Diseases, like the polio My sister had endured, floating paralyzed And strapped into her wheelchair all through That war, seemed too precise. Like photographs . . . Except disease left nothing. Disease was like And equation that drank up light & never ended, Not even in summer. Before my fever broke, And the pains lessened, I could actually see Myself, in the exact center of that square. How still it had become in my absence, & how Immaculate, windless, sunlit. I could see The outline of every leaf on the nearest tree, See it more clearly than ever, more clearly than I had seen anything before in my whole life: Against the modest, dark gray, solemn trunk, The leaves were becoming only what they had to be— Calm, yellow, things in themselves & nothing More—& frankly they were nothing in themselves, Nothing except their little reassurance Of persisting for a few more days, or returning The year after, & the year after that, & every Year following—estranged from us by now—& clear, So clear not one in a thousand trembled; hushed And always coming back—steadfast, orderly, Taciturn, oblivious—until the end of Time.
From The Widening Spell of the Leaves by Larry Levis, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright © 1991 by the estate of Larry Levis. Reproduced by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved.
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it
From The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara by Frank O’Hara, copyright © 1971 by Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O’Hara, copyright renewed 1999 by Maureen O’Hara Granville-Smith and Donald Allen. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
—Is where space ends called death or infinity? Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions A mere eyelid’s distance between you and me. It took us a long time to discover the number zero. John’s brother is afraid to go outside. He claims he knows the meaning of zero. I want to kiss you. A mathematician once told me you can add infinity to infinity. There is a zero vector, which starts and ends at the same place, its force and movement impossible to record with rays or maps or words. It intersects yet runs parallel with all others. A young man I know wants me to prove the zero vector exists. I tell him I can't, but nothing in my world makes sense without it.
Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org.
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like Glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
And wasn’t that good?
Them at your hips—
isn’t this what God felt when he pressed together
the first Beloved: Everything.
Fever. Vapor. Atman. Pulsus. Finally,
a sin worth hurting for. Finally, a sweet, a
You are mine.
It is hard not to have faith in this:
from the blue-brown clay of night
these two potters crushed and smoothed you
into being—grind, then curve—built your form up—
atlas of bone, fields of muscle,
one breast a fig tree, the other a nightingale,
both Morning and Evening.
O, the beautiful making they do—
of trigger and carve, suffering and stars—
Aren’t they, too, the dark carpenters
of your small church? Have they not burned
on the altar of your belly, eaten the bread
of your thighs, broke you to wine, to ichor,
to nectareous feast?
Haven’t they riveted your wrists, haven’t they
had you at your knees?
And when these hands touched your throat,
showed you how to take the apple and the rib,
how to slip a thumb into your mouth and taste it all,
didn’t you sing out their ninety-nine names—
Zahir, Aleph, Hands-time-seven,
Sphinx, Leonids, locomotura,
Rubidium, August, and September—
And when you cried out, O, Prometheans,
didn’t they bring fire?
These hands, if not gods, then why
when you have come to me, and I have returned you
to that from which you came—bright mud, mineral-salt—
why then do you whisper O, my Hecatonchire. My Centimani.
My hundred-handed one?