Letter to Venice: for Y
So sorry to leave your town
where water walks up the stairs
from the loggia, announcing its visit
together with that of its sister, the light,
addressing you in a gauzy step
on the piano nobile, when you raise
your head from your book and salute water
with its sister the light, either
in a morning wrap or evening in a gold play
before blue takes all.
Sitting up on Ysbrant's roof
(I hope you'll be pleased with this)
of statuary and rosemary and wisteria
(no, not wisteria, but what was it?)
for your drink, and the town became a house
furnished with the uncoloured masses
of apartments, churches, palazzos, bars,
where the ducal sun, walking down
in a marsh red hat, having trodden
the sea into an invisible lower floor
like a wine press...that's to say,
I was wrong, the light had changed
and the sea was a plinth on which
I rested the shadows of Venice,
a plinth as firm as the blue black earth,
so feeling it beneath my heel,
so sorry to leave your city.
(Sending you this anyway
as an inadequate person's humble thanks,
I hope you'll note I inserted your name,
in line 11, not as easy as you might think,
not as easy as pie -
that grand Ysbrant Van Wyngaarden -
Durer's knight - he rode from the north -
not for example as easy as slipping
on an indolent pillowing of wine
out of a gondola some evening, into a steeping
of water and its lady of wine, the light.)
From Swimming through the Grand
'…all men are Noah's sons.'
Richard Wilbur – from Still Citizen Sparrow
Mrs Noah was a little dimmer.
Not Bible fact but a mediaeval scold
who'd have got ducked
if she'd raised her village tongue
the way she did on board the ark.
Not my mother, this pauper myth
of husbands. Can't see her my mentor.
Can't think any woman I know
would like this scratcher either
cut off from powerful speech with God.
Pedant angel pinhead me!
Richard Wilbur means, we women
are included among Noah's sons.
Sons include daughters, and men naturally
include women, so we are also Noah's sons.
And this means, hanging loose, that
Mrs Noah was really Mr Noah himself,
very noble and worth copying of course
so anywhichway you and I are born of Noah
and we all had penises before the flood.
From Flame Tree 1988
The Finca Owner
Up inside the forest the old houses
palm tree and palm thatch. Nothing much is left,
except the land unharvested. On stones
Mayan blood has woven at gunpoint its traditional pattern.
New harvesters come, machines, sheds, roads for lorries.
The land becomes a proper business, the finca owner measures
his land as his tailor measures his belly. It is said
God made the Maya from maize; the owner is now
the man of maize, he is the woman of maize, he is the child
of rack and ruin, he is the coffee ghost, the cotton ghost,
the sugar ghost, he is the steer on the loose,
the mechanical horns have no prayer in their ploughing,
the land he swallows yields its fruits,
he spits out what yields no profit
such as dreams, grinding stones, the speaking in other tongues
of cooking fires, gods of no name he knows, the ash
of the disappeared. He has no skill but blood weaving.
Down here the people weave a village of memory
inside the steel thorn thicket of the pen.
From A Poem for Guatemala
A thatcher is someone who makes a
or used to, when things were quieter,
was someone who sheltered people
from the rain, when things were quieter.
A thatcher took folks from the wind
and layered the skin of a human weather.
Now a thatcher exposes the dweller,
rips off the roof in the skinning wind,
hurls down the roof on the dwellers,
who for cover snatch at the straws
the roof-maker rains
on their rainwashed heads ruthlessly
and in their teeth and in their eyes
like a war
that the thatcher unnaturally makes
on the dwellers. And the luckier,
snatching more straw cover of the undoing
thatch, despise the unluckier, the colder ones,
so that some see but many don't
or do see but not why, and think it
the way of a brave wise thatcher
that their fellows are icy and cold
in an inhuman country.
from Lets Pretend 1984
The humble beer
The humble beer at my right hand,
the fire a bar before my toe,
the television square ahead,
the sofa yielding to my rear,
the kettle pouting on the stove.
The sheriff switching smoking guns,
the tender chop upon the plate,
the fork to left, the knife to right.
The sheriff scolds the fiery whore,
the kettle pouting on the stove.
The bashful sheriff eyes the whore,
the knife and fork upon the chop,
the humble beer leaves little dregs,
the whore and sheriff ponder life,
the kettle whispers on the stove.
The sofa emanates a doze,
the fire recirculates my toes,
the whore and sheriff lose their clothes,
the tender chop inside me goes,
the kettle slumbers on the stove.
from Lets Pretend 1984
The Pope at Dublin Airport,
Oh the relief of the children!
After the barrier rows of the priests
each razored and batter-skinned face
asymmetrical, pressured with
spectacle jammed on bull brow by brow
lined – body versus soul
jarring like bouncers, night issue
by issue –
But the relief of the children!
Oh the smiling of the mothers!
Whose dresses blow in the wind. And they hold
The beloveds up to the broad
Pope's delighted grin. At something simple –
simply to suffer – no jarring – but (for him) –
more of the little children
to live and die in Christ, in Ireland,
in Asia, in Latin America.
Oh the blessed wombs of the mothers!
Oh the especial blessing of the
His grin that takes them – soft children
among the ridged men – And in
Bolivia Christian souls dig filth and tin
and die short – now may more replace them
to dig out more tin, to fly the Papa Pope
Father round the world, with God's love, in.
This is the smile, at Dublin.
Addressed to men, women and children.
From Touch Papers, a feminist
with Michele Roberts and Michelene Wandor
you unsquint your eyes cautiously.
I am sorry: I see I
acted like some sort of doctor,
cruel to be kind, kind but firm etc.
I dragged you out backwards,
clenched your barely known intelligence
before anything could be known
really; moulded you tartly
like a cook
with a large family to turn out for
(meat and two veg)
or a potter: more cups, they break,
You would have come out in your own
We can't be certain.
At least you exist,
Half-done, dwarfed, off shape,
meagre, a thin subsidized
at least you exist.
I wrap you up in the most exalted
one must guard you.
I was so hungry and thirsty for
From The Wicked Queen 1980
My love, do you hear
the seasonal voice of travellers light
in my sleepy afternoon dark
who come up behind us –
my arm at your arm, your thigh between my thighs,
three pillows for our two heads
pushed up to all soft angles.
I am at the back of beyond,
a thread of conversation like a ship's wake.
I lean out in my marigold silk –
Below you are planting the red bulbs
of tulips. I feel the earth through your fingers,
your damp hair, the weight of night
crouched on your back
and the final sidling noises of birds
in the roof over the lighted bedroom.
From Minefield 1977
The oar of this story fends me off
from the shore of my hope,
splashing in my ear
patience, capitano, capitaine,
my liege, me old dutch flyer,
first you'll have to wait
but we'll land there,
(I've said it before)
blames me, harder blames my wretched men,
blames nonsense, rubber squids, whirlpools
with a bad temper, gods, anyone -
why I can't just go quietly off home.
The oar of the story fends me off
from the cliff of my nightmare,
picking me from its teeth,
its triple rows triply rowed,
a row of heads.
The story splashes patience:
O my darling, old sad capitano.
How excited you are!
It tosses me between its hundred mouths.
Great stuff. Get stuffed.
It's cheery to be hero.
On we go, amigos,
down the ages way across the watery world,
and yearning, yearning for my home,
as you all do, as we do, though we can't go home,
never again - magic beyond the world's backside.
I will. I am.
Enter, my own guests,
this splashy home.
From The Odysseus Poems 1999
Penelope at night
In the end I'll be forced out.
And yet for twenty years this cliff
overlooking the bottomless strait
has suited me well, and
my son, and keeping house
and society of my regular choice.
Men ask me to marry them.
As a good cook I titillate
these tastebuds with zest and put the weddings off
though not necessarily the nights.
Nobody bothers me about this
except you at night when your father's shroud
is put by and from under the bed
I drag out yours. I start work.
It hauls me into its groping mesh.
I'm bundled in, cheek by cheek
with impossible fairy women
masterful and all-giving beyond
anything I ever did for you in bed.
I'm dragged in these relentless bedclothes
night after night, year after year,
into the swollen and circular
depths that tighten,
where beaks tear up useless flesh,
as we tear up old clothes
to use as rags in cleaning,
however beloved once were those clothes.
Isn't the husband who sails away
finally presumed drowned?
In the small hours, hearing the sea
creeping below in the shaft of the strait
I feel you crawl back under the water,
up the beach, up the path.
In the morning everything's undone,
begin all over again.
If you'd come back, old man,
I'd patch up old clothes,
I'd stop the rag-making,
the tearing, the twisting.
perhaps I'd sleep at night,
and the sea might behave itself,
the long black water at the doorpost.
From The Odysseus Poems 1999
Just as great-browed
Olympian Zeus like halogen
flooded the high mountain
to the heavy sea
so along Petronia
this cold Sunday evening,
yet sunbeam-lit his
O Cortez goes, rings on his
white cuffs at his wrists, gold watch
and lightweight suit in violet
largely squared by pinstripe white,
and old enough to be my Daddy -
dark brown and fine and fit
to be my everlasting beau, my ample
southern porch, my capital of smiles.
O Bro Cortez -
How in twilight, half his mass
he lightly dances,
cracker-jacks past yards
of crackly Grandmas
in crumbly cafe rockers -
So Olympian Zeus
danced to the cities
lissom as lightning,
fat as thunder,
lighting up time,
from 'Island Pursuits'
published in Just After Midnight 2004)
Just after midnight
EL. 23.10.02 - for my mother
Just after midnight long time gone
you set aside your slipper
onto the step of the house
and as you came into
the house, barefoot left it.
You would talk of your sleeping
waking him with that kiss,
such whims in the garden maze,
a modern woman's pounce.
I walked in the sun of your walk.
Our tales hang by their cherry
Silks and satins, cotton, rag.
How all the dazzlers danced
for you. How midnight
carried you off, brightest moon.
Published in Just After Midnight 2004)
One smile tilted at your lips
under the landslide of sleep.
You closed your blind, dark blue
Against me or the light?
The past is always, only here,
just before dead Christmas.
'Her body shutting down. ' I
(Like a factory, a company?)
'Everything packing up.'
One who moves house and goes away.
Your blood thin hands, your bone
slapping against the pillow.
Then, your calm,
O irrevocable sculpture.
Deep into the wild rose flowers
I see the young beauty, severe white-haired,
the girl in her satin wedding,
the dark-haired writer's indrawn gaze,
then, and then. Tonight
is the shut bedroom; and the moment
of birth, even, for look how you
against pillows, far away,
how you unsqueezed your eyes
to inspect your latest 'little creature',
and how did I look to you?
I must have turned and wobbled
with blind eyes, mouth, seeking
your breast, your eyes; but now, tonight, where
is the fair smile nourishing,
Published in Just After Midnight 2004
I won't dance
I hear the speech
Yeah I know the words
So I want to degrade war
I want to take war out
War is the real dumb stuff
I want to waste war
Give me collateral damage
A little damage to the dancestep
Of the President of Bullshit
Serious damage to the bullshit
Of the Secretary of Defence by
Slaughter in Cold Blood
But heal me the bloodlust
Of young Captain Kill -
No blood for oil -
No blood for oil
I know the speeches
Yeah I know the words
I want to hunt this war crittur
I want to waste this war crittur
But I won't dance, Captain Kill.
I won't dance
I have no assets
I don't have the futures
Of President Bullshit
I don't have the options of Secretary
Bloodlust and Kill
Their machines, their machines,
I don't deploy death
I don't soften up the women
and the children
Pardon, I meant the collateral damage
Oil is thick as hatred
No blood for oil
And I won't dance, Captain Kill
What shall we deploy
When sane men go down on
All fours and bay
To a full tank of gas?
I know the words
Peace is my baby
Yeah you people in power gone crazy
But peace is my baby
I won't dance, Commander Blood
I won't dance, Captain Kill
I won't dance.
We were lying, the two
on a freight lift platform
which four angels were
their haloes journeying
little by little up to
And you were stacked next to me
And I was stacked
like two symbiotic suitcases
with labels reading:
The Twilit Sky.
Our sleepy lift attendants
were the stars of
And we were the goods -
(published in Swimming Through the Grand Hotel,
reprinted by permission of Enitharmon for London's
Poems on the Underground)
Song of the
We are the diggers of
we dig and then we bury things.
Like sofas, fridges,
terrorists and little girls.
See how the wicked
himself before us down the drains,
and how we take
to reach through walls for dads and mums
compacting them to
or Paradise of they insist,
and ten to one they
How sweet the body parts do sleep,
beneath the quite of
So breathe now, breathe, in Tel Aviv,
where bulldozers have
come to live.
April, 2002; published
in Red Pepper, September 2002,
collected in Just After Midnight 2004
. . .
So we waited, sacrificed, made a fine fire,
dined on his goods. He carried a tower
of firewood when in he came at last, and crashed
it on the floor. Terrified, we rushed
and crouched in comers while in he drove his ewes
and she goats, penning the males outdoors.
Last, in the cave mouth for door he drops in a boulder
not twenty wagons could shudder.
In the half dark he milks his she-beasts and calls
their young to them and sets the pails,
some for cheese, some for milk for his evening meal,
and lights his fire - Now he can't fail
to spot us. He booms: 'What's this hiding in my home -
strangers? Well, where're you from?
Merchants, are you? Or pirates, gifting your evil
over random seas, wherever you travel!'
At the droning voice of the monster, dungeon loud,
our deep hearts shatter inside.
But courage answers: 'We are Greeks, sailed from Troy
and Agamemnon, blown to your door
by chaotic winds. We plead for your helping hand and
gifts for the voyage, as our good friend.
Observe the rights of strangers; behind us stands
great Zeus, who has no bounds.'
'Idiot or ignorant !' he roars, 'your stinking Zeus
won't stop blood if so I choose!
. . .But where, dear sir, did you leave your ship?'
I lie of course: 'Lost in the deep. . .
Sir, we escaped, but our ship drove onto a cliff
and Poseidon split her clean in half,
the timbers were taken by the offshore wind
and nothing of her left behind.'
He says nothing, just picks up two of my crew
and dashes their brains in a bloody blur
on the floor, like killing puppies, and claws them
limb from limb and devours them
like a mountain lion eating the flesh and bones
and the guts and all, and then he drains
down gallons of milk to fill his enormous belly
and sprawls asleep, bloody and oily
among his beasts. We lifted our hands to Zeus,
crying to heaven, but we were helpless.
I felt for his liver to stab him with my sharp sword
but stopped: the monstrous door was barred
with the boulder that only our jailor could move.
Kill him and we'd all die in the cave.
So I slid back to my trembling men. Sad-hearted
in the prison dark there we waited
for rosy dawn. And then he, Cyclops, rose to milk
his ewes, shifting his great hulk
to set the young Jambs to drink. But then he seized
another two of us. We watched, dazed,
while he wallowed again in flesh, blood, brains,
then went whistling to his fields and barns,
driving his flocks, but not before he'd shouldered back
that rock, grinding us into the dark,
lidding the cave mouth, as deft with the stone
as cap on a quiver. Then he was gone.
All day I mumbled revenge, and prayed to Pallas
how to pay back such foulness,
how get glory for doing it. And seeing a tree,
a huge tree club, where it lay
in the gloaming, drying out - green olive wood
as long as the mast of a twenty-oared
sea-going galley - his new cudgel there by the byres,
we rolled it out from the dark lairs
of the cave and into the last firelight, and we hewed
a fathom's length. The end we pared
to a sharp point. All that day I hardened the point
in the red embers. waiting for the giant.
Next, hiding it in the dung that littered the floor
I had my men cast lots to choose who
with me would ram it into that great eyeball
and the lots fell on the four most able.
Now Cyclops returned, and this rime, either
by a god's plan or warned, whichever,
he brought in the males. He milked the females and set
the young to feed, and reached his great
hands to tear two more of us to death, and he fed.
The moment comes. In fury unafraid,
I bring a bowl of ivy wood, full of black wine
and say to him, 'Cyclops, full of sin
and rage, this was meant for you, my guest's offering.
Drink, and know that my suffering
at your red hands will drive all others away from you.
How can a guest visit here now?'
He laps it up, delighted, and says. 'Your name, sir,
first, and then my gift for your pleasure,
a special guest gift, for this wine is special, well above
even the rarest wines we serve.
Rain from Heaven waters our wine, but this wine
must flow of Heaven's own
nectar and ambrosia!' Indeed three bowls fuddled
the monster's brain. So then I riddled :
'Cyclops, my name is No One. My parents chose that
name at birth. No One is what
my friends say. Cyclops, keep your word. What is
my guest gift for this courteous
reply.' He laughed. 'This, O No One, that I shall eat
you last.' And guffawing 'goodnight',
he fell back onto the dung, snoring and slobbering,
and milk and lumps of flesh ran bubbling
from his gaping mouth, his thick neck slumped over,
one drunk snore chasing another.
I urged my friends not to fear, not surrender,
and poked the beam deep in the fire.
It grew white hot, incandescent, nearly
catching alight. No shilly shally
now. I pulled it out, and now my men (some god
giving us strength) came in a crowd
and we leaned the white hot point deep into Cyclops'
eyeball and felt it quiver and collapse.
Leaning from above, I twizzled the beam round, like a man
drilling a ship's timber while turn
and turn about his mates keep whirling the drill
with the flying straps until they twirl
and sink it in. So into that eye
sank the fiery stake
and around it the blood boiled dark,
the flaming ball singed the brow
and the eyelid
and the roots of it crackled and fried.
Think how an iron blade when
plunged by the smith
to temper it and get it tough
gives a great hiss. That's just how
hissed. He screams, horribly.
Terrified, we scuttle for safety.
He pulls out
the glowing stake and blood rolls out
in streams. Throwing it away with
he roars hugely for his monster friends
in the next door crags. They wake,
call, 'Polyphemus !'
rush up outside, shout, 'Tell us
where the thieves are! Else why
disturb the night?
Surely no one dares to hurt
great Polyphemus by force or by
'Yes! No One is killing me,' he hurls
back at them, 'by both force and
wile !' And they:
'You're ill, friend, and that's beyond the
help of all, being willed by Zeus.
Poseidon, pray for his favour,
that's all we can say, if no one is
Goodnight. And shut this bedlam.'
Fool, I laughed to myself, seeing my alias
had worked so well. But fierce
Cyclops, groaning, pushed the rock from his entrance
and sat there himself, ready to pounce
on us in flight, arms wide to catch our escape
as we ran with the trotting sheep.
Fool again, I thought, I'm not so stupid. And I racked
my brains in our peril, and looked
with all my wits for a way to outsmart him. At
last I saw how to run the gauntlet.
He had rams, big and black woolled and fleecy.
I caught them, lashed them with lacy
willow withies I stole from Cyclops' big bed
so each three ran side by side
and to each middle ram, under the thick curly
belly I tied a man in the woolly
fleece. The outer rams were his protection.
For myself I now took action.
Taking the biggest ram, the leader of the flock,
I wound both arms over his back
and clamped myself underneath, trying to press
my whole self into the glorious fleece.
Now patience. Now wait. Now we all hung on
trembling, for the blessed dawn.
. . .
(© Judith Kazantzis)