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poems
Margaret Atwood

There are similarities
I notice: that the hills
which the eyes make flat as a wall, welded
together, open as I move
to let me through; become
endless as prairies; that the trees
grow spindly, have their roots
often in swamps; that this is a poor country;
that a cliff is not known
as rough except by hand, and is
therefore inaccessible. Mostly
that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.

There are differences
of course: the lack of reliable charts;
more important, the distraction of small details:
your shoe among the brambles under the chair
where it shouldn’t be; lucent
white mushrooms and a paring knife
on the kitchen table; a sentence
crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log
I’m sure I passed yesterday

(have I been
walking in circles again?)

but mostly the danger:
many have been here, but only
some have returned safely.

A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions
from the movements of the sun,
which are erratic;
and words here are as pointless
as calling in a vacant wilderness.

Whatever I do I must
keep my head. I know
it is easier for me to lose my way
forever here, than in other landscapes

5
Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

4
Donald Hall

My son, my executioner,
       I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astir
And whom my body warms.

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
      Of immortality,
Your cries and hunger document
Our bodily decay.

We twenty-five and twenty-two
      Who seemed to live forever
Observe enduring life in you
And start to die together.

2
Maya Angelou

My man is Black Golden Amber Changing.
Warm mouths of Brandy Fine
Cautious sunlight on a patterned rug
Coughing laughter, rocked on a whirl of French tobacco
Graceful turns on woolen stilts Secretive?
A cat’s eye.
Southern, Plump and tender with navy bean sullenness
And did I say Tender?
The gentleness
A big cat stalks through stubborn bush
And did I mention Amber?
The heatless fire consuming itself.
Again. Anew. Into ever neverlessness.
My man is Amber
Changing
Always into itself
New. Now New
Still itself.
Still

1
Maya Angelou

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked
A song that’s spoke,
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.

Sixty years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “Yes ma’am” for working’s sake.
Too proud to bend
Too poor to break,
I laugh until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard I nearly died,
The tales they tell, sound just like lying,
They grow the fruit,
But eat the rind,
I laugh until I start to crying,
When I think about my folks.

13
W. H. Auden

Let me tell you a little story
  About Miss Edith Gee;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
  At number 83.

She’d a slight squint in her left eye,
  Her lips they were thin and small,
She had narrow sloping shoulders
  And she had no bust at all.

She’d a velvet hat with trimmings,
  And a dark grey serge costume;
She lived in Clevedon Terrace
  In a small bed-sitting room.

She’d a purple mac for wet days,
  A green umbrella too to take,
She’d a bicycle with shopping basket
  And a harsh back-pedal break.

The Church of Saint Aloysius
  Was not so very far;
She did a lot of knitting,
  Knitting for the Church Bazaar.

Miss Gee looked up at the starlight
  And said, ‘Does anyone care
That I live on Clevedon Terrace
  On one hundred pounds a year?’

She dreamed a dream one evening
  That she was the Queen of France
And the Vicar of Saint Aloysius
  Asked Her Majesty to dance.

But a storm blew down the palace,
  She was biking through a field of corn,
And a bull with the face of the Vicar
  Was charging with lowered horn.

She could feel his hot breath behind her,
  He was going to overtake;
And the bicycle went slower and slower
  Because of that back-pedal break.

Summer made the trees a picture,
  Winter made them a wreck;
She bicycled to the evening service
  With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She passed by the loving couples,
  She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples,
  And they didn’t ask her to stay.

Miss Gee sat in the side-aisle,
  She heard the organ play;
And the choir sang so sweetly
  At the ending of the day,

Miss Gee knelt down in the side-aisle,
  She knelt down on her knees;
‘Lead me not into temptation
  But make me a good girl, please.’

The days and nights went by her
  Like waves round a Cornish wreck;
She bicycled down to the doctor
  With her clothes buttoned up to her neck.

She bicycled down to the doctor,
And rang the surgery bell;
'O, doctor, I’ve a pain inside me,
  And I don’t feel very well.'

Doctor Thomas looked her over,
  And then he looked some more;
Walked over to his wash-basin,
Said,'Why didn’t you come before?'

Doctor Thomas sat over his dinner,
  Though his wife was waiting to ring,
Rolling his bread into pellets;
  Said, 'Cancer’s a funny thing.

'Nobody knows what the cause is,
  Though some pretend they do;
It’s like some hidden assassin
  Waiting to strike at you.

'Childless women get it.
  And men when they retire;
It’s as if there had to be some outlet
  For their foiled creative fire.'

His wife she rang for the servent,
  Said, 'Dont be so morbid, dear’;
He said: 'I saw Miss Gee this evening
  And she’s a goner, I fear.'

They took Miss Gee to the hospital,
  She lay there a total wreck,
Lay in the ward for women
  With her bedclothes right up to her neck.

They lay her on the table,
  The students began to laugh;
And Mr. Rose the surgeon
  He cut Miss Gee in half.

Mr. Rose he turned to his students,
  Said, ‘Gentlemen if you please,
We seldom see a sarcoma
  As far advanced as this.’

They took her off the table,
  They wheeled away Miss Gee
Down to another department
  Where they study Anatomy.

They hung her from the ceiling
  Yes, they hung up Miss Gee;
And a couple of Oxford Groupers
  Carefully dissected her knee.

3
Maya Angelou

The highway is full of big cars
going nowhere fast
And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn
Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass
And you sit wondering
where you’re going to turn
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow
But others say we’ve got a week or two
The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror
And you sit wondering
What you’re gonna do.
I got it.
Come. And be my baby.

2
William Carlos Williams

When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s
edge, unseen, the salt ocean

lifts its form—chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone

but color and the movement—or the shape
perhaps—of relentlessness, whereas

the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem

Charles Bukowski

Go to Tibet.
Ride a camel.
Read the Bible.
Dye your shoes blue.
Grow a Beard.
Circle the world in a paper canoe.
Subscribe to “The Saturday Evening Post.”
Chew on the left side of your mouth only.
Marry a woman with one leg and shave with a straight razor.
And carve your name in her arm.

Brush your teeth with gasoline.
Sleep all day and climb trees at night.
Be a monk and drink buckshot and beer.
Hold your head under water and play the violin.
Do a belly dance before pink candles.
Kill your dog.
Run for Mayor.
Live in a barrel.
Break your head with a hatchet.
Plant tulips in the rain.

But don’t write poetry.

13
Margaret Atwood

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

Maya Angelou

That man over there say
a woman needs to be helped into carriages
and lifted over ditches
and to have the best place everywhere.
Nobody ever helped me into carriages
or over mud puddles
or gives me a best place...

And ain’t I a woman?
Look at me
Look at my arm!
I have plowed and planted
and gathered into barns
and no man could head me...
And ain’t I a woman?
I could work as much
and eat as much as a man—
when I could get to it—
and bear the lash as well
And ain’t I a woman?
I have born 13 children
and seen most all sold into slavery
and when I cried out a mother’s grief
none but Jesus heard me...
and ain’t I a woman?
that little man in black there say
a woman can’t have as much rights as a man
cause Christ wasn’t a woman
Where did your Christ come from?
From God and a woman!
Man had nothing to do with him!
If the first woman God ever made
was strong enough to turn the world
upside down, all alone
together women ought to be able to turn it
rightside up again.

4
Seamus Heaney

I loved to carry
Her violin case, its nose
In air, its back end
Nice and heavy, the balance
Factored in and factored out.

Every time she placed
Her two thumbs to the two snibs
And opened the lid
She couldn’t help a quick frown
(Disguised pleasure?) as she checked.

Then her brow would clear
And the sun disc of her face
Tilt up and brighten
At the tap of a baton,
At the tip of a baton…

In the baize-lined case
Emptied of the ingrown jut
Of the fiddlehead,
A lump of ancient resin
And a dirty chamois cloth.

The conductor’s hands –
Big and out of proportion
To his skinny wee
Professor’s body–always,
she said, “interested” her.

Fiddlehead ferns: why
do I think of them do I
Think: Toraiwa?
Because–surprise–he quizzed me
about the erotic life.