Excerpt from 'Collected Poems'
Scotch Tape Body
I never thought,
forty years ago,
taping my poems into a notebook,
that one day the tape
would turn yellow, grow brittle, and fall oﬀ
and that I’d find myself on hands and knees
groaning as I picked the pieces
up oﬀ the floor
one by one
Of course no one thinks ahead like that
If I had
I would have used archival paste
or better yet
not have written those poems at all
But then I wouldn’t have had
the pleasure of reading them again,
the pleasure of wincing
and then forgiving myself,
of catching glimpses of who I was
and who I thought I was,
the pleasure—is that the word?—of seeing
that that kid really did exist.
The Death Deal
Ever since that moment
when it first occurred
to me that I would die
(like everyone on earth!)
I struggled against
this eventuality, but
never thought of
how I’d die, exactly,
until around thirty
I made a mental list:
hit by car, shot
in head by random ricochet,
crushed beneath boulder,
victim of gas explosion,
head banged hard
in fall from ladder,
vaporized in plane crash,
dwindling away with cancer,
and so on. I tried to think
of which I’d take
if given the choice,
and came up time
and again with He died
in his sleep.
Now that I’m oﬃcially old,
though deep inside not
old oﬃcially or otherwise,
I’m oddly almost cheered
by the thought
that I might find out
in the not too distant future.
Now for lunch.
It’s funny when the mind thinks about the psyche,
as if a grasshopper could ponder a helicopter.
It’s a bad idea to fall asleep
while flying a helicopter:
when you wake up, the helicopter is gone
and you are too, left behind in a dream,
and there is no way to catch up,
for catching up doesn’t figure
in the scheme of things. You are
who you are, right now,
and the mind is so scared it closes its eyes
and then forgets it has eyes
and the grasshopper, the one that thinks
you’re a helicopter, leaps onto your back!
He is a brave little grasshopper
and he never sleeps
for the poem he writes is the act
of always being awake, better than anything
you could ever write or do.
Then he springs away.
Tamburlaine crashed through
around 1375. Marlowe
had written his play by 1587.
The intervening years bled
into history, the fourteenth
a very bloody century.
Good that Marlowe waited
to be born suﬃciently later,
thus avoiding the real
Tamburlaine, who might have
torn his head oﬀ.
But he died young anyway,
did Marlowe, not even thirty.
The “high astounding terms”
he promised he delivered.
Still it makes me mad
that he got stabbed to death,
though I have to admit
it’s part of his appeal.
The Curvature of Royalty
One of the surprising things about modern life
is that quite a few countries still have kings and queens
and palaces for them to live in
as well as great wealth to use or even have!
These kings and queens accept the idea
that they should be kings and queens,
just as many people born to money
accept their wealth as natural
and most poor people assume that poverty is their destiny
no matter what they say to the contrary.
Everything points toward Fate:
the rocks are as they are, the clouds too, the giraﬀe
and the cantaloupe are all lined up
facing an imaginary point of origin
like lines in a diagram of perspective,
and though the lines bend slightly through time
everyone bends with them, so the dung beetle
remains a figure of comedy.
Further along the chain of evolution
he becomes the court jester
juggling words and jumping around
in the debris of falling syntax.
The King laughs mightily, the Queen quietly,
for though they have become playing cards
they still can be amused,
and at any moment they can roll oﬀ the cards
and onto the floor of their palace
where they can laugh all they want
and the servants will keep looking straight ahead.
Sir Thomas Browne said
that it is useless to erect monuments
in the hope of being remembered
by generations far into the future
since the future itself
will cease to exist. That is,
the world would be destroyed soon,
hence "'Tis too late to be ambitious."
Apparently this belief was widely held
by English people in the seventeenth century.
My grandmother, in the twentieth century,
took a curious pleasure in pursing her lips and stating
"The Bible says the world will last
one thousand years but not two," which meant that I
could not live past the age of 58
and might be there for The End of the World.
Fortunately I did not believe her
and unfortunately it made me think
she was a little bit crazy and certainly thoughtless
in saying such a thing to her young grandson.
The Bible also says that Methuselah
lived to the age of 969. They should have chosen
a more credible number, for, as Joe Brainard asked,
"If a hundred-year-old man can barely stand up,
can you imagine what it would be like to be five hundred?"
I can barely imagine what it is like to be any age,
though I can imagine what it is like to be dead
because I have woken up after a deep sleep
with no memory of it.
So you don't have to imagine anything
to know what being dead is like.
One less thing to worry about!
Unless, of course, I'm wrong about the afterlife,
and fiery demons prod you with red-hot tridents
into the writhing maw of an inferno of glistening snakes.
Fortunately this happens only to Christians—
fortunately for me, that is.
Sir Thomas Browne was a Christian
but I hope he believed he'd go to Paradise,
for it seems too bad such a wise and learnèd man
should think that he would go to Hell.
Browne lived to 77, to the day.
I'm not sure the exactitude means anything here,
but for his time he was quite old,
and possibly surprised to wake up and find himself
892 years younger than Methuselah, or wake up
and find himself at all, in bed, and still on earth!
Then he died.
"I didn't plan on living this long,"
said my other grandmother, at 96,
"but I just keep on breathing."
We Three Kings
We three kings of Orient
We came all this way
only to get lost?
“Get lost!” is what
when we said
“Are we here?”
Now we are really lost
and disillusioned too.
our cigars were loaded
on the backs of imaginary camels
but we thought the world
could use a good laugh.
I guess we were wrong.
Let’s change the subject.
In the hills an occasional noise—
shotgun here, bloodcurdling shriek there, hey
nonny nonny, and two boys, lost, weird, homeless, starving, about to be
eaten by a big black bear! O muse avert thine eyes!
(I will look for you.)
The bear shambles forth
on his hind legs, so shaggy they are
and smelly, and waves his forepaws in the air as if
he were erasing the blackboard on which
our fate is written, and the boys have hair
standing up on their heads and the trees lean back
as far as trees can lean and not fall down, they
hate that hair! I do too! (Muse, don’t look yet.)
But then a man comes through the woods
with comb and scissors—it’s barber Tom, come
to give those boys a haircut and the bear one too,
if it wants, and it does, and all three share
in this tonsorial moment, hair
falling softly on the forest floor.
Walking with Walt
When everyday objects and tasks
seem to crowd into the history you live in
you can’t breathe so easily you can hardly breathe at all
the space is so used up,
when yesterday there was nothing but.
Ah, expansive America!
you must have existed. Otherwise no Whitman.
It’s funny that America did not explode
when Whitman published Leaves of Grass,
explode with amazement and pride, but
America was busy being other
than what he thought it was and I grew up
thinking along his lines and of course now
though actually at this very moment
the trees are acting exactly the way they did
when he walked through and among them,
one of the roughs, as he put it,
though how rough I don’t know I think he was just carried away
as we all are, if we’re lucky
enough to have just walking
buoy us up a little oﬀ the earth
to be more on it
Inaction of Shoes
There are many things to be done today
and it’s a lovely day to do them in
Each thing a joy to do
and a joy to have done
I can tell because of the calm I feel
when I think about doing them
I can almost hear them say to me
Thank you for doing us
And when evening comes
I’ll remove my shoes and place them on the floor
And think how good they look
sitting? . . . standing? . . . there
Not doing anything