Bitter Grace

From The Lemon Trees by Eugenio Montale:

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.

You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every fading human shadow
something divine let go.

Found at Bitter Grace Notes

The rest of the poem is here

cross-posted at ellusive …

American Vortex

On Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra:

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” originated as a kind of proto-podcast that Ginsberg intoned into an Uher tape recorder while traveling across the American heartland in the winter of 1966. Though the language of the poem is specific to the Vietnam War (which was escalating at the time), it certainly speaks to the conditions of 2006 — not only in its refrain about how empty language started, but cannot end, a military action, but also in its riff on the contradictions between distant Asia and the Middle American conservatism that has enabled a war there; in its alarm at the numbing impact of global telecommunications and the media preoccupation with statistics; in its despair at the hypocritical politicians and corporations that are profiting from the war. Fragments of the poem first appeared in the May 27, 1966, issue of LIFE, and the full text later debuted in a City Lights “Pocket Poets” collection entitled Planet News.

Ginsberg’s journey to Kansas, which he undertook in a Volkswagen van purchased with Guggenheim grant money, stemmed from his long-standing fascination with the state (in “Howl,” he mentions Kansas as the place where “the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet”). In one sense, Ginsberg felt that Kansas was politically representative of Middle American support for war and the military-industrial complex — a stereotype that presaged its current “red state” reputation by several decades. But beyond political generalizations, Ginsberg saw Kansas as the mystic center of America, celebrated by Whitman in Leaves of Grass (“chants going forth from the center, from Kansas, and thence equidistant / shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all”). The poet saw Wichita, the ultimate destination of his road-trip poem, as the symbolic heart of this transcendental American vortex.   [more]

From The Last Anti-War Poem by Rolf Potts at The Believer

From “On ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra'” –

With admirable sincerity and making no bones about it, Ginsberg attempts to assume the role called for by Shelley in the celebrated if somewhat petulant assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  Ginsberg assumes this role when he attempts to legislate by declaring the end of hostilities in Viet Nam. . . .  What makes this assertion so original is the means by which Ginsberg strives to give validity and authority to his act of legislation: he declares the end of the war by making a mantra. . . .

Does the mantra work? . . .  [more]

Paul Carrol

Hearing Ginsberg read “Wichita Vortex Sutra” during the war was exhilarating. In a large audience the declaration of the war’s end was collectively purgative. The text of the poem retains that fragile, deluded but dramatic effectiveness because it registers its unresolvable ambiguities with such clarity. [more]

Cary Nelson

Wichita Vortex Sutra

Philip Glass

Wichita Vortex Sutra, Allen Ginsberg (audio)

Ginsberg’s Anti-War Poem

From Wichita Vortex Sutra

O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me–
                     On the bridge over the Republican River
                                almost in tears to know
                                           how to speak the right language–
                     on the frosty broad road
                                uphill between highway embankments
                     I search for the language
                                          that is also yours–
                                almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Radio antennae high tension
           wires ranging from Junction City across the plains–
           highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow
                                lanes curving past Abilene
                                          to Denver filled with old
heroes of love–
                                to Wichita where McClure’s mind
                                          burst into animal beauty
                                          drunk, getting laid in a car
                                                     in a neon misted street
                                                               15 years ago–
           to Independence where the old man’s still alive
           who loosed the bomb that’s slaved all human consciousness
                             and made the body universe a place of fear–
Now, speeding along the empty plain,
                      no giant demon machine
                                visible on the horizon
           but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky’s edge
                      I claim my birthright!
                                reborn forever as long as Man
                                          in Kansas or other universe–Joy
                      reborn after the vast sadness of War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear,
                      imaging the throng of Selves
                                 that make this nation one body of Prophecy
                                          languaged by Declaration as
I call all Powers of imagination
           to my side in this auto to make Prophecy,
                                                                         all Lords
                      of human kingdoms to come
Shambu Bharti Baba naked covered with ash
                      Khaki Baba fat-bellied mad with the dogs
Dehorahava Baba who moans Oh how wounded, How wounded
           Sitaram Onkar Das Thakur who commands
                                                       give up your desire
Satyananda who raises two thumbs in tranquility
           Kali Pada Guha Roy whose yoga drops before the void
                       Shivananda who touches the breast and says OM
Srimata Krishnaji of Brindaban who says take for your guru
           William Blake the invisible father of English visions
            Sri Ramakrishna master of ecstasy eyes
                       half closed who only cries for his mother
Chaitanya arms upraised singing & dancing his own praise
            merciful Chango judging our bodies
                       Durga-Ma covered with blood
                                    destroyer of battlefield illusions
                       million-faced Tathagata gone past suffering
            Preserver Harekrishna returning in the age of pain
Sacred Heart my Christ acceptable
                       Allah the Compassionate One
                                           Jahweh Righteous One
                                     all Knowledge-Princes of Earth-man, all
            ancient Seraphim of heavenly Desire, Devas, yogis
                                     & holymen I chant to–
                                            Come to my lone presence
                                                    into this Vortex named Kansas,
I lift my voice aloud,
            make Mantra of American language now,
                             I here declare the end of the War!
                                         Ancient days’ Illusion!
                     and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
            let the Nation weep,
                       let Congress legislate it own delight
                                  let the President execute his own desire–
this Act done by my own voice,
                                          nameless Mystery–
published to my own senses,
                               blissfully received by my own form
            approved with pleasure by my sensations
                       manifestation of my very thought
                       accomplished in my own imagination
                               all realms within my consciousness fulfilled
            60 miles from Wichita
                                          near El Dorado,
                                                     The Golden One,
in chill earthly mist
            houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
                                                                        in every direction
one midwinter afternoon Sunday called the day of the Lord–
            Pure Spring Water gathered in one tower
                                  where Florence is
                                                        set on a hill,
                                  stop for tea & gas

Allen Ginsberg


Darwin's Finches
My mother always called it a nest, 
the multi-colored mass harvested

from her six daughters' brushes, 
and handed it to one of us

after she had shaped it, as we sat in front 
of the fire drying our hair.

She said some birds steal anything, a strand 
of spider's web, or horse's mane,

the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses 
near a fold

where every summer of her girlhood 
hundreds nested.

Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius—
how they transform the useless.

I've seen plastics stripped and whittled 
into a brilliant straw,

and newspapers—the dates, the years—
supporting the underweavings.

As tonight in our bed by the window 
you brush my hair to help me sleep, and clean

the brush as my mother did, offering 
the nest to the updraft.

I'd like to think it will be lifted as far 
as the river, and catch in some white sycamore,

or drift, too light to sink, into the shaded inlets, 
the bank-moss, where small fish, frogs, and insects

lay their eggs. 
Would this constitute an afterlife?

The story goes that sailors, moored for weeks 
off islands they called paradise,

stood in the early sunlight 
cutting their hair. And the rare

birds there, nameless, almost extinct, 
came down around them

and cleaned the decks 
and disappeared into the trees above the sea.
Deborah Digges

Bird of Mine

I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing —
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears —
And as the Rose appears,
Robin is gone.
Yet do I not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown —
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.
. . .
Then will I not repine,
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown
Shall in a distant tree
Bright melody for me
– Emily Dickinson

“What you’ve come to.”

My Life’s Calling

My life’s calling, setting fires.
Here in a hearth so huge
I can stand inside and shove
the wood around with my
bare hands while church bells
deal the hours down through
the chimney. No more
woodcutter, creel for the fire
or architect, the five staves
pitched like rifles over stone.
But to be mistro-elemental.
The flute of clay playing
my breath that riles the flames,
the fire risen to such dreaming
sung once from landlords’ attics.
Sung once the broken lyres,
seasoned and green.
Even the few things I might save,
my mother’s letters,
locks of my children’s hair
here handed over like the keys
to a foreclosure, my robes
remanded, and furniture
dragged out into the yard,
my bedsheets hoisted up the pine,
whereby the house sets sail.
And I am standing on a cliff
above the sea, a paper light,
a lantern. No longer mine
to count the wrecks.
Who rode the ships in ringing,
marrying rock the waters
storm to break the door,
looked through the fire, beheld
a clearing there. This is what
you are. What you’ve come to.


Deborah Digges

1950 – 2009

via wood s lot

UPDATE:  Tribute to Digges at NYT with her poem, Seersucker Suit

I’ve Got This Mystic Streak …

Domestic Mysticism
In thrice 10,000 seasons, I will come back to this world
In a white cotton dress. Kingdom of After My Own Heart.
Kingdom of Fragile. Kingdom of Dwarves. When I come home,
Teacups will quiver in their Dresden saucers, pentatonic chimes
Will move in wind. A covey of alley cats will swarm on the side
Porch & perch there, portents with quickened heartbeats
You will feel against your ankles as you pass through.

After the first millenium, we were supposed to die out.
You had your face pressed up against the coarse dyed velvet
Of the curtain, always looking out for your own transmigration:
What colors you would wear, what cut of jewel,
What kind of pageantry, if your legs would be tied
Down, if there would be wandering tribes of minstrels
Following with woodwinds in your wake.

This work of mine, the kind of work which takes no arms to do,
Is least noble of all. It's peopled by Wizards, the Forlorn,
The Awkward, the Blinkers, the Spoon-Fingered, Agnostic Lispers,
Stutterers of Prayer, the Flatulent, the Closet Weepers,
The Charlatans. I am one of those. In January, the month the owls
Nest in, I am a witness & a small thing altogether. The Kingdom
Of Ingratitude. Kingdom of Lies. Kingdom of How Dare I.

I go on dropping words like little pink fish eggs, unawares, slightly
Illiterate, often on the mark. Waiting for the clear whoosh
Of fluid to descend & cover them. A train like a silver 
Russian love pill for the sick at heart passes by
My bedroom window in the night at the speed of mirage.
In the next millenium, I will be middle aged. I do not do well
In the marrow of things. Kingdom of Trick. Kingdom of Drug.

In a lung-shaped suburb of Virginia, my sister will be childless
Inside the ice storm, forcing the narcissus. We will send
Each other valentines. The radio blowing out
Vaughan Williams on the highway's purple moor.
At nine o'clock, we will put away our sewing to speak
Of lofty things while, in the pantry, little plants will nudge
Their frail tips toward the light we made last century.

When I come home, the dwarves will be long
In their shadows & promiscuous. The alley cats will sneak
Inside, curl about the legs of furniture, close the skins
Inside their eyelids, sleep. Orchids will be intercrossed & sturdy.
The sun will go down as I sit, thin armed, small breasted
In my cotton dress, poked with eyelet stitches, a little lace,
In the queer light left when a room snuffs out.

I draw a bath, enter the water as a god enters water:
Fertile, knowing, kind, surrounded by glass objects
Which could break easily if mishandled or ill-touched.
Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.
There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.
Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,
With tenderheartedness. I've got this mystic streak in me.
Lucy Brock-Broido

A Wild Surprise for All My Beauties

Spring Song II

And now my spring beauties,
Things of the earth,
Beetles, shards and wings of moth
And snail houses left
From last summer’s wreck,
Now spring smoke
Of the burned dead leaves
And veils of the scent
Of some secret plant,

Come, my beauties, teach me,
Let me have your wild surprise,
Yes, and tell me on my knees
Of your new life.

A spring poem for Easter day by Jean Garrigue (1914-1972), anthologized in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets edition The Four Seasons, edited by J. D. McClatchy.

Blog Birthday

Turns out I missed my own blog birthday.  April 6, 2008.  I should have something to say about it but it seems I don’t.  In fact, I haven’t had much to say at all of late.  Maybe later.  For now, I’ll just re-post the first thing I put on the blog.  Perhaps even more appropriate now than it was a year ago and not unrelated to my lack of blogging.

Psalm for Distribution

on 8th Street
between 6th Avenue and Broadway
there are enough shoe stores
with enough shoes
to make me wonder
why there are shoeless people
on the earth.

You have to fire the Angel
in charge of distribution.

Jack Aguëros

Five years ago, Aguëros learned that he had Alzheimer’s Disease.  Here’s a story from Poets Against the War, written a year ago, and another poem:

While the disease is still in its early stages, he needs assistance with daily living. That means he needs financial assistance, too, since his application for Medicaid has yet to be approved. As a result, ten poets and writers held a benefit reading to help his children defray the costs of caring for him.

The idea for the benefit started with Martin Espada, a poet whom I have known since we met in Havana in 1999. He was there to lead a workshop. I was there to write about rafter-boy Elian Gonzalez. He must have seen the glazed-over look in my eyes when I lamented the lack of anything to read besides Granma. He gave me a book of his poetry, earning my gratitude and, eventually, my friendship.

“For years, Jack spoke for us,” said Mr. Espada, a poet who was 11 years old when he first met Jack. “Tonight, we speak for him.”

And how. The crowd attracted a curious cross section of people with roots in East Harlem, Puerto Rico (or even the Bronx, the place to which some Puerto Ricans were banished into exile, at least according to one of Jack’s poems). Edwin Torres, the former judge who wrote “Carlito’s Way’ (1975) and “Q & A” (1977), sat up front, resplendent in leather and smiles. In the back sat Dylcia Pagan, the Puerto Rican nationalist who spent almost 20 years in a federal prison for seditious conspiracy. In between these two extremes were young poets, old activists, assorted artists and local residents who have been resisting the neighborhood’s slow but steady wave of gentrification. They were the kind of people who still call the neighborhood El Barrio even as real estate types refer to it incongruously as Upper Yorkville.

Jack was there, too, chatting with friends and well-wishers. The setting itself was doubly fitting. In 1945, he attended grammar school in the red-brick building, which was then Public School 107. He later immortalized the place in a contrite “Sonnet for Miss Beausoleil,” in honor of a teacher whose honor he had offended on a dare. The building is now named for Julia de Burgos, the Puerto Rican poet whose complete works Jack translated in 1996.

Crammed into the bookends of those two events is several lifetimes of advocacy and art. In 1968, Mayor Lindsay appointed him to be the second in command at the city’s antipoverty agency. When a background check revealed he had failed to file tax returns for a few years, he was dismissed. Rather than slink away, he hunkered down on a couch in his office and began a hunger striketo protest the absence of Puerto Ricans in government. He vowed he would stay until he died (though in a nod to his cultural roots, he allowed himself coffee). The protest ended when the mayor agreed to some of his demands.

He would later go on to be one of the earliest directors of El Museo del Barrio, which at the time was the country’s only Puerto Ricanmuseum. The institution still exists, though it has since broadened its mission to include Latino and Latin American artists from different countries. More recently, he has translated the poetry of José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence from Spain.

Since falling ill, he has been helped withthe translation by Lidia Torres, herself a young poet. She took part in Tuesday’s benefit, along with other young poets like Aracelis Girmay and Rich Villar. They were joined by older trailblazers like Sandra Maria Esteves and Julio Marzan. Jack basked in the affection, at times shouting out encouragement or a wisecrack with a flash of his killer smile.

The event raised some $3,000, which his son, Marcel Agüeros, said would be used to offset the costs of home care while they wait for his Medicaid application to be approved. Marcel said the family was grateful to those who attended the benefit, including representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association of New York, which has also given them money for emergency care. (Donations can be sent to Marcel Agüeros, Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory, Mail Code 5247, 550 West 120th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027.)

“It takes a whole network to do the care-giving,” said Marcel, who shares the tasks with his sister, Natalia. “It’s like a full-time job.”

His father now attends a day program, he said.

“He still remembers people,” Marcel said. “His personality is still fairly intact.”

So is his reputation, earned through years of community service and writing everything from short stories to psalms and sonnets. In an interview with his publisher at Curbstone Press, he saw himself as a chronicler of the working class, who refused to accept the prevailing, dismissive view of Latinos in this city and country.

“Latinos are always a minor chord in the symphony, if they are portrayed at all,” he said in the interview. “They are like a roll of the drums and then dismissed, and their depiction is not flattering when it is highlighted.”

His own literary influences ranged a lot farther than the streets of his childhood. In the same interview with his publisher, he singled out E. E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charles Dickens with fondness.

“Edna St. Vincent Millay, she totally wrecked the sonnet form and made it so damn beautiful,” he said. “And I love Dickens because he mixed up the classes.”

He can talk about those writers withthe same, hip voice that betrays his East Harlem roots. That kind of authenticity, however, can confound those who would rather get their inner-city kicks laced with keeping-it-real chaos. Martin Espada wonders how someone like Jack could fly under the radar for so long, while literary fakes like Margaret Seltzerget overnight praise and dollars for a whole-cloth memoir about being raised among drug-slinging gangs in Los Angeles.

“For the wider audience, pathology is authenticity,” Mr. Espada said. “What Jack demonstrates is we are much more diverse and complex than anyone has admitted. Or that we have even admitted to ourselves.”

If anything the neighborhood of Jack’s youth was a veritable hothouse for future Puerto Rican writers, said Edgardo Vega Yunqué, a novelist who moved to East Harlem in 1952 when he was 15 years old. Among those who would go on earn success and respect were Judge Edwin Torres, Ed Rivera, author of “Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic” (1982), and Piri Thomas, whose memoir, “Down These Mean Streets” (1967), is a classic of the genre.

Mr. Vega has been a close friend of mine from the early 1980s, when we both worked at mind-numbing day jobs that had nothing to do with writing. He has always reveled in the area’s rich culture, as well as the complexity of the city that surrounded it.

“It was a seedbed for what we are today,” Mr. Vega said. “We were a very isolated community. To the south was Yorkville and the Germans, to the west was Harlem and the blacks and to the east were the Italians. We had to defend our very small territory. Consequently, we forged an identity out of that. There was a solidarity and identity as Puerto Ricans I haven’t seen since.”

Well, he caught a glimpse of it on Tuesday night.

reserve a place for me in heaven on a cloud
with Indians, Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians,
Portuguese, and lots of Asians and Arabs, and Hispanics.
I don’t mind if they play
their music too loudly,
or if they leave their windows open –
I like the smell of ethnic foods.
But Lord,
if heaven isn’t integrated,
and if any Angels are racists,
I swear I’m going to be a no-show
because, Lord,
I have already seen hell.

– “Psalm for Open Clouds and Windows,” from Jack Agüeros, “Lord, Is This a Psalm?” 



Aguëros’ book, Lord, is This a Psalm? at