Issue 5

Ralph Black
Three poems


The morning isn’t a riddle
after all, but a problem,
an unfigured sum, digits climbing,

decimals moving up the row,
zeros speaking their open-throated
songs of praise.

The afternoon isn’t, after all,
a shepherd napping on a hill,
but a Rabbi wide awake on a bench

on a boulevard of sycamores—
two or three worlds away
from where I sit, on another bench,

watching a row of blackbirds
clatter along a wire like abacus beads,
tallying with Gnostic zeal.

Even the evening
isn’t evening after all, but
something less, dusk

subtracted from dark, the moon’s
remainder pared down, carried over
to the next column,

where a few stars
languish like tarnished coins,
and snails glister over wet leaves,

where the day’s ledger lies open
on a table, all but unreadable
in this thin parchment of light.

Mid-Life Asceticism

I’ve given up the star chart
of my father’s death,
that fading constellation,
but not the moon of my mother’s,
gibbous and silver in the sky.

I’ve given up the ratcheting chorus
of tree frogs crooning the day
to a close, but not the lazy pulse of crickets
keeping the summer grass awake.

I’ve given up piling stones
on the earth to leave some sign
of my passing, though sometimes,
when no one is watching,
I toss sticks behind me as I go,
a trail to follow back, a game
to tire the hungry dogs.

I’ve given up my hands
down my pants, watching Grace Kelly
hail a cab on 7th Avenue, but not
Kate Hepburn swirling kiss-colored
Beaujolais in a long-stemmed glass
on her father’s front porch.

I’ve sworn off Rembrandt’s light,
but not Vermeer’s, and turned away from
Picasso’s scissors, though not Matisse’s.
As for the Brueghels, I’ve given up one
but kept the other, though I’d rather not say
which is the father, which the son.

I’ve abandoned phone calls and emails,
faxes and telegrams, but not
sweet gossip passed across the fence,
and not Post-its or shopping lists—
clues to remind me the way home every night.

As for sorrow and anger, I’ve booted
those old oaths halfway down
the basement steps, but I’ve held tight
to love, the anchorite’s anchor,
that deep clarifying drink, even though some days
my mouth comes away from that cup
thirsting for things that linger
at the tip of my tongue.

All this in less than a month
of sitting in a damp anteluvian cave,
a rock for a pillow, fistfuls of sand
to rub into my hair. All this as the years
come knocking, and the songs
drift away, and the dust swirls importantly
each time I go to the door.

In Lieu of an Ars Poetica

                   I wanted to write a poem
of magnitude and cunning,
             elegance and Zen-like verve,
       a bluesy, operatic

                   little number, part silk blouse,
part motorcycle denim—
             A poem, if I, or if it
       was lucky, that might startle

                   a hillside woozy with crows,
sending those eighty-seven
             caterwauling cut-ups up
       into the uncrowed ether,

                   smudged and lovely as ink blots.
It was a soft-shoe dazzle
             I sought, one of those so-slow
       inevitable turnings

                   that Fred Astaire, channeling
Bill Robinson, perfected—
             a gem of a poem, so deft-
       ly coy in its precisions

                   that paint-by-number artists
could phone it into being
             with a few daubs of a brush,
       some effortlessly rendered

                   bit of ekphrastic élan
that might be snazzily framed,
             then offered up at Christie’s
       or Sotheby’s, bidding launched

                   at a cool ten grand. I’d meant
to write such a poem for months,
             had what the precoital, post-
       lapsarian Freudians

                   call the best of intentions,
spent my three day vacation
             sharpening pencils, whittling
       my quills, alphabetizing

                   my small library of books
by syllable and phoneme.
             Except for cleaning the fridge
       it was all the essentials

                   needed for burning my way
into a poem, for tapping
             that elemental juke-joint
       of poetry, the low-down,

                   sweetly moaned kaleidoscope
of words, orchestrated moths
             fluttering at the window,
       elegantly enfolded

                   as a monk’s origami,
or leaves stitched into a map
             of autumn, interwoven
       with their own delicate stems,

                   not banged together the way
a palette- and tin-roofed shack
             might be, all the rusty nails
       crimped over, ribbons of sky

                   visible between the warped
boards of the master bedroom.
             And don’t think I didn’t try.
       I did. Tried like a mad man

                   tries, a shirt-rending nut job
muttering lies to himself
             long into the spooling dark.
       I thought math might do the trick,

                   so started enjambing lines
at the algebraic root
             of Fibonacci’s sequence,
       considered how square-rooting

                   each syllable’s reduction
would give the poem a certain
             audacious simplicity.
       But, no. There was good reason

                   math and I had called it quits
back in 7th grade. Something
             about numbers and letters
       tripping over each other

                   the way egrets and antelopes
would trip, if someone taught them
             to skirmish for hockey pucks
       on a Quebecoise ice field.

                   You can see how such a game,
all akimbo and flailing,
             could turn ugly. I needed
       Bach, not Schoenberg. Duke or Diz,

                   not Sun Ra and his minions.
I conjured Blake conjuring
             Milton, Dylan smoke-signaling
       his glint-eyed guru, Rimbaud.

                   Even spent one evening
reading through the old songbook
             of Frank Lloyd Wright, found myself
       dreaming of Falling Water,

                   Taliesin’s fiery gift,
how the sweep of the prairie
             was made for such conflagrant
       grandeur. But page after page

                   only fed the hungry stove,
the house alit with the noise
             of burning paper, my two
       daughters scratching at the door,

                   whimpering like beaten cats
for a bowl of lukewarm milk.
             But the poem, the poem! O cruel
       evasion! Delirious

                   tease. O rhythm-trifling,
image-quashing, sweet music-
             silencing number machine.
       It hummed and quizzled about

                   like a rag-winged hummingbird
tippling a dram too many
             at a fermenting feeder.
       I put a bike in the poem

                   when a cyclist whirled by
my window, hoping a bike
             would give the old contraption
       a breezed, vitalizing spin.

                   I reinvented the names
of birds and flowers, exclaimed
             upon sunlight, how the stones,
       tropiest of tropes, dwindled

                   under the scurrying feet
of insects. O, it was work,
             alright. Don’t think it wasn’t.
       I even fiddled around

                   with love, the finickiest
frontier, summoning the face
             of my beloved, placing
       breast next to death, collarbone

                   seven syllables before
eroticon, sexing up
             the climax-calibrating
       dénouement. Hell, I even

                   snuck in a morsel of French,
thinking the two sexy tongues
             might spur and urge each other
       toward some lyric sturm und drang.

                   But at the end of it all
I was left with little more
             than an unfountaining pen
       in my hand, not a jigger

                   of sippable whiskey, not
a quaffable glass of wine
             or water, not so much as
       a crow or raven chortling

                   like dark jesters from a branch
in a neighbor’s tree. Nothing
             but a few red leaves sifting
       past my window, leaves and leaves

                   being only what they were,
carbon flares turning to dust
             as they fell, but giving me,
       at least, at last, some little

                   something to scribble across
the top edge of the paper,
             a word that fit its own sound,
       a sound that could turn itself

                   to anything, paper moths
or dead leaves, broken up moons
             or bicycles. I gathered
       a handful of tiny rocks,

                   walked, half awake, to the pond
behind the house. I stood there
             a little while, then tossed
       each one of them as far out

                   as I could into the dark
sprawl of water. Little plinks
             rang out, like miniature frogs
       skim-skipped or catapulted

                   into Basho’s old haiku,
then the slow lapsing of rings,
             the watery insistence
       pushing to the very edge

                   of a poem I’ve been writing
all this time about the night,
             and the day that would follow,
       and so on, et cetera.