“At a Certain Age”

As Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz shows us, the urge to confess can be a problem. Sometimes you just have to bottle it all up and hope it doesn’t burst.

At a Certain Age

We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.
White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind
Was too busy visiting sea after sea.
We did not succeed in interesting the animals.
Dogs, disappointed, expected an order,
A cat, always immoral, was falling asleep.
A person seemingly very close
Did not care to hear of things long past.
Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee
Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom.
It would be humiliating to pay by the hour
A man with a diploma, just for listening.
Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what?
That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble
Yet later in our place an ugly toad
Half opens its thick eyelid
And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”

El Dorado

John Wayne and James Caan in Howard Hawks’s El Dorado

Today’s poem was actually a part of one of my favorite Westerns: Howard Hawks’s El Dorado (1966), which is a remake of the same director’s Rio Bravo (1959) starring the same actor, John Wayne. The lines are spoken by James Caan, in his first major role. Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote it, spelled it as one word: Eldorado—and that’s the name he gave to the poem.

Unlike Poe’s knight, I have found El Dorado to be in many places: Iceland, Scotland, Mexico, the Andes in South America, and even—appropriately—parts of the American Southwest.

Eldorado

Gaily bedight, 
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long, 
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado. 

But he grew old – 
This knight so bold – 
And o’er his heart a shadow 
Fell, as he found 
No spot of ground 
That looked like Eldorado. 

And, as his strength 
Failed him at length, 
He met a pilgrim shadow – 
‘Shadow,’ said he, 
‘Where can it be – 
This land of Eldorado?‘

‘Over the Mountains 
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow, 
Ride, boldly ride,‘
The shade replied, 
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’

No Stylist He!

Poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

Okay, so he’s no great stylist. You won’t quote his poems at length the way you might quote Keats or Shakespeare. But I guarantee you will get what he has to say because it is written to communicate simply and directly. You can read a book of Bukowski poems the way you read a pulp novel, from end to end, with total comprehension. In my book, that counts.

mugged

finished,
can’t find the handle,
mugged in the backalleys of nowhere,
too many dark days and nights,
too many unkind noons, plus a
steady fixation for
the ladies of death.

I am 
finished, roll me
up, package
me,
toss me 
to the birds of Normandy or the
gulls of Santa Monica, I
no longer
read
I
no longer
breed,
I
talk to old men over quiet
fences.

is this where my suicide complex
un-
complexes?: as
I am asked over the telephone:
did you ever know Kerouac?

I now allow cars to pass me on the freeway.
I haven't been in a fist fight for 15 years.
I have to get up and piss 3 times a night.

and when I see a sexpot on the street I
only see
trouble.

I am
finished, back to square one,
drinking alone and listening to classical
music.

much about dying is getting ready.
the tiger walks through my dreams.

the cigarette in my mouth just exploded.

curious things still do
occur.

no, I never knew Kerouac.

so you see:
my life wasn’t 
useless
after
all.

“The American Night”

Here is one of my favorite poems by Jim Morrison of The Doors:

The American Night

for leather accrues
The miracle of the streets
The scents & smogs &
pollens of existence

Shiny blackness
so totally naked she was
Totally un-hung-up

We looked around
lights now on
To see our fellow travellers

I am troubled
Immeasurably
By your eyes

I am struck
By the feather
of your soft
Reply

The sound of glass
Speaks quick
Disdain

And conceals
What your eyes fight
To explain

She looked so sad in sleep
Like a friendly hand
just out of reach
A candle stranded on
a beach
While the sun sinks low
an H-bomb in reverse

Everything human
is leaving
her face

Soon she will disappear
into the calm
vegetable
morass

Stay!

My Wild Love!

I get my best ideas when the
telephone rings & rings. It’s no fun
To feel like a fool—when your
baby’s gone. A new ax to my head:
Possession. I create my own sword
of Damascus. I’ve done nothing w/time.
A little tot prancing the boards playing
w/Revolution. When out there the
World awaits & abounds w/heavy gangs
of murderers & real madmen. Hanging
from windows as if to say: I’m bold-
do you love me? Just for tonight.
A One Night Stand. A dog howls & whines
at the glass sliding door (why can’t I
be in there?) A cat yowls. A car engine
revs & races against the grain- dry
rasping carbon protest. I put the book
down- & begin my own book.
Love for the fat girl.
When will SHE get here?
~~~

In the gloom
In the shady living room
where we lived & died
& laughed & cried
& the pride of our relationship
took hold that summer
What a trip
To hold your hand
& tell the cops
you’re not 16
no runaway
The wino left a little in
the old blue desert
bottle
Cattle skulls
the cliche of rats
who skim the trees
in search of fat
Hip children invade the grounds
& sleep in the wet grass
’til the dogs rush out
I’m going South!

A Bird Came Down the Walk

This is probably one of Emily Dickinson’s clearest poems, and one of her best.

A Bird, came down the walk

A Bird, came down the Walk - 
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 
 
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass -
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass -
 
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad -
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. - 
 
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home -
 
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Days

Château de Amboise, Where Leonardo Is Buried

King François I of France invited Leonardo Da Vinci to move to Amboise, where he lived in a splendid house within walking distance of the Chåteau de Amboise. Polish Poet Adam Zagajewski wrote a poem musing on Leonardo’s last act on the Loire in France.

Leonardo

He lives in France now,
calmer and much weaker.
He is the jewel in the crown. Favored
with the monarch’s friendship.
The Loire rolls its waters slowly.
He considers the projects
he left unfinished.
His right hand, half-paralyzed,
has already departed.
His left would also like to take its leave.
And his heart, and his whole body.
Islands of light still
stand sentry.

Lament of the Blind Librarian

Though he lost the use of his eyes in the 1950s, Jorge Luis Borges was appointed to head the National Library of Argentina. He was the second blind librarian there, the first being Paul Groussac. Borges works on the theme of his blindness and Groussac’s in the following poem:

Poem of the Gifts

No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.

Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.

From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of this blind library.

Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

In shadow, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
in form and image as a library.

Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books. He too was blind.

Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.

Which of the two is setting down this poem—
a single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?

Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.

“True Love”

Author Barry Gifford (Born 1946)

I find myself liking Barry Gifford’s work more the more I read him. Here is a poem called “True Love.” And I didn’t even know he wrote poetry!

True Love

Your sickness made me
a little sick, it's
true—I still
feel it
     Mayakovsky got down
          on his knees
     and declared
               his love
to his last 
          mistress
        a few hours after
           he'd met her
Remember me 
at the hotel
            in Paris,
         on my knees
            in the lift?
We're all the same
men of too much passion
and a little talent—
    some a little more
                  than others
    We fool ourselves
       into thinking
                  we're strong
          then complain
      the rest of our lives
          crippled by
            the consequences

“Far from Dawn”

I have just finished reading a poetry collection that was the best I have read in half a century. Over the past month or two, I have read several poems by Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021). His Mysticism for Beginners is full of startling images, deep insights, and even clarity, which is rare in contemporary poetry. Here is the first poem in the book:

A Quick Poem

I was listening to Gregorian chants
in a speeding car
on a highway in France.
The trees rushed past. Monks’ voices
sang praises to an unseen God
(at dawn, in a chapel trembling with cold).
Domine, exaudi orationem meam,
male voices pleaded calmly
as if salvation were just growing in the garden.
Where was I going? Where was the sun hiding?
My life lay tattered
on both sides of the road, brittle as a paper map.
With the sweet monks
I made my way toward the clouds, deep blue,
heavy, dense,
toward the future, the abyss,
gulping hard tears of hail.
Far from dawn. Far from home.
In place of walls—sheet metal.
Instead of a vigil—a flight.
Travel instead of remembrance.
A quick poem instead of a hymn.
A small, tired star raced
up ahead
and the highway’s asphalt shone,
showing where the earth was,
where the horizon’s razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening
and night, widow of so many dreams.



“The Best Is Yet To Be”

I never thought I would be alive at the age of 77. My father died at 74 years old; and my mother, at 79. When I was a student at St. Henry Elementary School, I thought, “Gosh, I’ll be 55 years old when we get to the year 2000.” I passed that milestone at a run.

In the illustration above, I am somewhere between the third and fourth figure. Thankfully, my health is good. I can get about without a cane, though I find going down a flight of stairs to be painful. Kneeling on a hard surface is out of the question.

When I think about aging, I call to mind the first stanza of Robert Browning’s poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra”:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!” 

I see some of my friends fall by the wayside, some dying, some suffering personality disorders as they age, and some just isolating themselves.

This is not a subject anyone likes to think about. There are, however, dangers inherent in suppressing any important subject.

The times are always bad—and always have been. Yes, what is happening in Ukraine is terrible. But so was ducking under my school desk at St. Henry to practice for a Communist H-Bomb attack. So was World War Two. So was … oh … Genghis Khan.

I always wanted to be a writer. And in a manner of speaking, I am one. I don’t care about compensation or fame. Just sitting down around 9 o’clock most evenings and writing this blog is a worthwhile effort. It makes me feel good about myself.