Five poems to make you swoon

For National Poetry Month, selections from new books by Anne Carson, Charles Wright and others.

By Salon Staff
Published April 14, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Sumptuous Destitution

from "Men in the Off Hours"

By Anne Carson

Knopf, 192 pages

"Sumptuous destitution"

Your opinion gives me a serious feeling: I would like to be what you deem me
(Emily Dickinson letter 319 to Thomas Higginson)

is a phrase

You see my position is benighted.

(Emily Dickinson letter 268 to Thomas Higginson)

scholars use

She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's

(Thomas Higginson letter 342a to Emily Dickinson)

of female

God made me [Sir] Master -- I didn't be -- myself.

(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)


Rushing among my small heart -- and pushing aside the blood --

(Emily Dickinson letter 248 to Thomas Higginson)

Save what you can, Emily.

And when I try to organize -- my little Force explodes -- and leaves me bare and charred.

(Emily Dickinson letter 271 to Thomas Higginson)

Save every bit of thread.

Have you a little chest to put the Alive in?

(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)

One of them may be

By Cock, said Ophelia.

(Emily Dickinson letter 268 to Thomas Higginson)

the way out of here.

A Winter's Tale

from "Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems"

By Wyatt Prunty

Johns Hopkins University Press, 224 pages

for Ian

Silent and small in your wet sleep,

You grew to the traveler's tale

We made of you so we could keep

You safe in our vague pastoral,

And silent when the doctors tugged

Heels up your body free of its

Deep habitat, shoulders shrugged

Against the cold air's continent

We made you take for breathing.

Ian, your birth was my close land

Turned green, the stone rolled back for leaving,

My father dead and you returned.

Police Sift New Clues in Search for Beauty

from "A Taxi to the Flame"

By Vickie Karp

University of South Carolina Press, 90 pages

-- headline in the New York Post

Outside the precinct, the continents sway

In a monster wind.

A cat snoozes on a humidifier

In the corner of the squad room,

Her unfettered breath keeping time

With the office clock.

Her favorite cop glares at

The barracuda faces of wanted men

Posted in a row on the wall, their beauty

Clearly drained off, but to where?

"I did it and I'm glad," says the first face.

"I did it and I'm glad," says the next.

The Public Defender chews his lunch thoughtfully,

as if feeling for nails with his teeth.

All morning and afternoon,

He and the rookies plowed through fields

Of bluish data,

Each in his own way,

The P.D. has fears of dying, of rescuing

A maiden who crushes him with her weight and terror.

He keeps one eye on the door,

The pale glue of a tear idling beneath his lid.

Through the glass partition

To the captain's office, someone mutters

"I know it's here somewhere ...

I saw it, for Chrissake!"

While slowly, against the breakers,

Evening sets sail on the East River

With its freight of passions,

As, uptown in Helsinki, her evidence

Burning gaily in the handsome fireplace,

Beauty reads her mail.

And in Caracas

Beauty plunges her hand into a book

As if to read it by touch.

And in a murky corner of Antwerp

Beauty unwraps

A heart-round box of chocolates,

Each one the dark shape of a hill,

And in Irkutsk

Beauty, bending to tie a shoe,

Lifts up her head expectantly.

Get This

from "Once I Gazed at You in Wonder"

By Jan Heller Levi

Louisiana State University Press, 96 pages

I did not get this from any book

I got this from cornfields washed out, waved out under racing moon

splitting like brain

Right side right side right side

Left side left side left side

I did not get this from any book

but from tongue of dog

wide, pink as my tongue

long as I live lick lasts

and love is something brown-eyed, drowsy

I got this from sleep, I got this from waking

I would have traded for sleep, waking

long after nights of purpled sky

nippled with clouds

I did not get this from any book

I got this on trust and betrayal, I got this on trust

I got this on trust funds

on loan

with interest

I got this from inhale inhale inhale

exhale exhale exhale

I did not get this from blood, blood

means nothing, I did not get this from nature

or nurture, I did not get this from any book

I got this from mind that muscles

outmuscles heart

I got this from hangnail

from hangman

from hanging above a rushing river

this bank roaring

that bank roaring

I got this from mushrooms, I got this from sitting at the table

late later later and still I would not eat

I got this from leaves and spine

I got this from stranger who said I want

to take your picture, come here, come

back here,

drop your blouse from your shoulder lower a little lower a little lower

I got this from necklines

standing on lines, sign on the dotted lines

I got this from scissors

but I was always losing the scissors

I got this from A my name is

B my name is

I got this from scissors but I was always losing the scissors

I got this from rock, I got this from rock

and roll all the world over so easy to see people everywhere just gotta be

I got this from paper, please listen to me

but I did not get this from any book

understand me now I did not get this from any book

I got this from light on the books at 1, 2, 3 in the morning

the whole house so quiet it could have been dead

I could have been the only one even trying to live but I did

not get this from any book

even when I danced at 4 in the morning

even when I wept at 5 in the morning

even when I danced, even when I wept

look, here's the path traveled from eye to mouth first tear

second tear

call a life an open book I did not get this from any book

call a life a closed book I did not get this from any book

call may God inscribe your name in the book of life

I did not get this from any book come into my library

said the spider to the fly

open any book

it will tell you I did not get this from it

even if I burn it I will have this

even if I burn it

even if I burn

Meditation on Song and Structure

from "Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems"

By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 224 pages

I love to wake to the coo coo of the mourning dove

At dawn --

like one drug masking another's ill effects,

It tells me that everything's all right when I know that everything's wrong.

It lays out the landscape's hash marks,

the structures of everyday.

It makes what's darkened unworkable

For that moment, and that, as someone once said, is grace.

But this bird's a different story.

Dawn in the Umbrian hills.

In the cracks of the persian blinds, slim ingots of daylight stack and drip.

This bird has something to say --

a watery kind of music,

Extended improvisations, liquid riffs and breaks --

But not to me, pulled like a dead weight

From the riptide of sleep, not to me,

Depression's darling, history's hand job, not to me ...


Twice, now, I've heard the nightingale.

First in the first light

Of a dust-grey dawn,

And then at midnight, a week later,

Walking my friend to the parking lot

In Todi, moon vamping behind the silted cloud mounds,

A pentimento of sudden illumination,

Like bird work or spider work.

Senti, my friend said,

El'usignolo, the nightingale,

As bird and bird song drifted downhill,

easy as watershine,

Ripply and rock-run.

Silence. No moon, no motorbike, no bird.

The silence of something come and something gone away.

Nightingale, ghost bird, ghost song,

Hand that needles and threads the night together,

light a candle for me.


Swallows over the battlements

and thigh-moulded red tile roofs,

Square crenelations, Guelph town.

Swallows against the enfrescoed backdrop of tilled hills

Like tiny sharks in the tinted air

That buoys them like a tide,

arrested, water-colored surge.

Swallows darting like fish through the alabaster air,

Cleansing the cleanliness, feeding on seen and unseen.

To come back as one of them!

Loose in the light and landscape shine,

language without words,

Ineffable part of the painting and ignorant of it,

Pulled by the lunar landswell,

Demi-denizen of the godhead

Spread like a golden tablecloth wherever you turn --

Such judgement, such sweet witch-work.


This mockingbird's got his chops.

Bird song over black water --

Am I south or north of my own death,

west or east of my final hurt?

In North Carolina, half a century ago,

Bird song over black water,

Lake Llewellyn Bibled and night-colored,


Soul-throated, like light, a little light in great darkness.

Zodiac damped, then clicked off,


Bird song over black water.

I remember the way the song contained many songs,

As it does now, the same song

Over the tide pool of my neighbor's yard, and mine's slack turning,

Many songs, a season's worth,

Many voices, a light to lead back

to silence, sound of the first voice.


Medieval, prelatic, why

Does the male cardinal sing that song omit, omit,

From the eminence of the gum tree?

What is it he knows,

silence, omit, omit, silence,

The afternoon breaking away in little pieces,

Siren's squeal from the bypass,

The void's tattoo, Nothing Matters,

mottoed across our white hearts?

Nature abhors originality, according to Cioran.

Landscape desires it, I say,

The back yard unloading its cargo of solitudes

Into the backwash of last light --

Cardinal, exhale my sins,

help me to lie low and leave out,

Remind me that vision is singular, that excess

Is regress, that more than enough is too much, that

compression is all.

Salon Staff

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