Advice to a Young Poet

“What is poetry which does not save nations or people?” – Czselaw Milosz

Ask the question.
Not once but forty-nine times.
And, perhaps at the fiftieth,
you will make an answer.
Or perhaps not. Then
ask it again. This time
till seventy times seven. Ask
as you open the door
of every book of poems that you enter.
Ask it of every poem,
regardless of how beautiful,
that whispers: “Lie with me.”
Do not spare your newborn.
If the first cry, first line
is not a wailing for an answer,
abandon it. As for the stillborn,
turn the next blank white sheet over,
shroud it. Ask the clamouring procession
of all the poems of the ages –
each measured, white-haired epic,
every flouncing free verse debutante –
to state their names, where they have come from
and what their business is with you.
You live in the caesura of our times,
the sound of nations, persons, breaking around you.
If poetry can only save itself,
then who will hear it after it has fled
from the nations and the people that it could not save
even a remnant of for a remembering?


More by Kendel Hippolyte

Creation

For days, weeks at a time, i lose whatever it is
which keeps my senses softened to the sentience of the earth,
to hillside grass running lightly before a silver wind
or a far slope rippling like a muscled shoulder
or how the gradine, faceted pebbles under me will rasp
as i ease in closer, resting my back
against the rough-skinned body of a gliricidia.

All this can suddenly go without a hint
like a room slips into darkness with a passing cloud—
except, i don't know how,
it happens with no slippage of the sense of self.
On drizzled mornings, when a silver fluttering beats to a white rush down the hills,
i can believe that seraphs bear the rain to us.
By afternoon, wind has lost color, stones are exactly stones,
the green ascending hill has stiffened into a surveyor's gradient.
The names by which i used to call the earth to come to me
have hardened in my mouth to scabs.

Who was it then who saw the wings of seraphs?
And who is looking now, squinting with eyes of quartz?
i want to understand how, inhabitants of the same life,
they do not know each other, they have never met;
how, looking out of the same windows, they see different worlds.
i want to find a way that they may see each other.
i want them—the glint-eyed one of rationed sight,
       the other, dream blinded even in the day's light—
to meet and in that meeting learn a threefold vision
that hopefully i may translate into new lines of language,
lines braided from their voices and my own speaking together,
an utterance which, if even for the duration of only a few words,
will speak our earth original again into creation.

Value

            (from Home Economics—for Wendell Berry)

In those days all shops were called Ma This or Mister That.
One shop my mother used to send me to was called Ma Branch.
i’d go, playing with my shadow all the way,
trying to outrun it on the Methodist church wall,
dodging it away from other feet—or suddenly stopping it,
chanting my list meanwhile so i would not forget:
1/2 lb. saltfish, 1/4 bottle oil, 4p. keg butter, 1 blue soap, 2 cough drops
over and over till i reached the shop.

Of the two ladies selling, i liked the tall, dark, gleaming one
whose face i later recognised in Benin sculpture.
She would set the things down one by one:
gold, blue, lemon, dark-white speckled shapes, smells, rustlings of paper
until i had a heap of pirate’s treasure on the wooden counter.
Then she would slip the pencil from her hair,
tear off a piece of shop paper, make a rope ladder of figures
and i would watch the pencil climb, drop, climb, drop.

Ma Branch didn’t sell; she sat down, buxom and comfortable as a barrel
amidst a larger treasure heap of bags and boxes, packages, cans,
not missing a thing, collecting money, talking with customers.
Some women came with notebooks and no money — regulars:
“Ma Branch, on Friday when the man get pay....”
and sometimes a child, whose mother couldn’t write,
would speak up, too loudly: “Ma Branch, my mother say...”

Ma Branch had a miraculous set of balances in her head
in which she weighed each separate request
unhurriedly. No one ever took her for granted. Yet
i never saw her do otherwise eventually
than bob her head, to one side, to a shop lady
then nod, once, the other side, to an expectant customer.
By some commonly held scale of values, now so strange,
she gave all of them credit.
Fascinated, i’d hand over my money, wait for change
then race back past the church wall, followed by my shadow.

Years afterward, when seeking the darker shadow brought me home,
i heard that she had died.
There is a super-market on that spot now — it’s larger, well-arranged.
But it can’t fill the space she occupied.

Delirium Tremens

Towards the end he got the d.t.’s. He would see
a smiling girl in a white first communion dress
waving at him. He’d smile back, point her out to me
and i stopped arguing because she, more than i, could bless
even a little, those last days when my presence
only made heavier a weight of guilt and love
that he was tired of. He turned to her, his innocence,
he turned to her — with joy, the way he would have
turned to me, his son, if i had known enough
to see, past a son’s need, what he was giving:
his rebel walk, trampling all boundaries, and his child’s laugh
bursting like fireworks, igniting from a flame of living.
i grew too fast. i never met, in me, the child
he later raised from his own need, who waved and smiled.