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from How Beautiful the Beloved

ISSUE:  Spring 2007


Doesn’t the soldier serve
The state? Isn’t that his
Or her job? Doesn’t
He dream of heroic deeds,
Or she of giving her life
To protect her family?

Who does the poet serve?
The poet serves poetry,
Whose form is the beloved,
Who asks not blood but love.

Soon the battle will begin.
Always, it’s the eve of battle.
Do we have the courage we need?

The Book held close, the pages
You cherish clearly marked.
Will you be brave enough to speak?


We poets are always
Dipping our cups
In Heraclitus’ river,
Drinking its health,
Toasting it with raised
We know
A single drop of it
Sanctifies an entire
Gallon of wine.

We know it’s the deep
Stream of the world
And surges through
Every page of the Book.

We know the beloved
Is an otter that dives
From its banks, frolics
In its swirling currents.

Or bows above its
Shallows as a heron,
Ready to seize
The minnow of us in her beak.


The Book said we were mortal;
It didn’t say we had to be morbid.

The Book said the beloved died,
But also that she comes again,
That he’s reborn as words.

The Book said: everything perishes.
The Book said: that’s why we sing.


When the beloved
Has the blues—
No cheering her up,
No lifting him
From the dumps.

When the beloved
Is the blues,
No keeping her down,
No muffling his voice.
It sounds out
Over the radio waves—
A low moan and a high
She’s the guitar
Sound like the train
Leaving town.
Moan and yell—
Where is your baby bound?


All that’s begotten must rot:
That’s written somewhere
Deep inside us,
Inscribed on our bones.

We knew it long before
We could read;
Heard it first
In our mother’s womb
As a pulse of song:
Presence, then absence,
Love, then loss.

How we danced even then
To that tune,
Never bothering to ask
If it was sad or happy,
Because we knew it was true.


Praxilla, almost-forgotten
Greek poet—that poem
She put in the Book.

It concerns dead Achilles
And some considered it
Undignified—the way
She had him speak to us
From that cheerless
Afterworld the Greeks
Imagined, even
For their heroes—speak
Of what he missed—
Her poem a little list:

Stars and moon and sun
And the taste of ripe cucumbers.


Don’t bother to ask
For the Book at the library:
It’s always checked out.
You’d have to conclude
No one ever returns it.

Better to put together
Your own version:
The poems and songs
You love—the ones
That saved you when
You were young
And suffered; and also
Those that consoled you
When you were older.


What or who does the Book
No one and nothing.

Not a single leaf on a tree.
Not an eyelash.
Not a tear or a smile.

It welcomes all the beloveds.
Shelters them,
Shapes them into words.

Then gives them back,
Gives them back to the world.


Letting go, when all you want is to hold.
Turning away, when all you want is to stay.

Almost all that’s in the Book was written
On just such a day:

Someone remaining;
Someone going away.

Someone becoming silent;
Someone who must say.


Praising all creation, praising the world:
That’s our job—to keep
The sweet machine of it
Running as smoothly as it can.

With words repairing, where it wears out,
Where it breaks down.

With songs and poems keeping it going.
With whispered endearments greasing its gears.


This is what was bequeathed us:
This earth the beloved left
And, leaving,
Left to us.

No other world
But this one:
Willows and the river
And the factory
With its black smokestacks.

No other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather.

No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make.

That, and the beloved’s clear instructions:
Turn me into song; sing me awake.


When my gaze strays
From the page,
I see how mortal
I am: my mottled hand
Resting on the tabletop
Like a tired thing sleeping.

When I read the poem
Aloud, my hand revives.
It wants to dance
In the air in time
To the words.
It wants
To make a sweeping gesture
As if clearing cobwebs
Or yanking back
A heavy curtain
To reveal the world.


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