UTNAA Distinguished Professor of English
Director, Meacham Writers' Workshops
PhD Yale, 1976
Author of 14 books of poems, including Traversings (Ancho and Plume, 2016), Retrievals (CR Press. 2014), Resonanicia (Barcelona, 2014) and Out of Place (Ashland 2014) and Maxine Kumin Award Winner Retrievals (C&R Press, 20124), as well as Resonance (Ashland, 2010), Half Lives: Petrarchan Poems (Autumn House, 2004) Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems (Ashland Poetry Press, 2003), Heartwall (UMass, 2000 Juniper Prize), Svetovi Narazen (Slovenia, 2001). A limited edition small press book, Falling Stars: A Collection of Monologues (Flagpond Press, 2002) and Richard Jackson: Greatest Hits (2004), and several chapbooks of translations. His own poems have been translated into a dozen languages. He has edited two anthologies of Slovene poetry: The Fire Under the Moon and Double Vision: Four Slovenian Poets (Aleph, ’93) and edits an eastern European Chap book series, Poetry Miscellany and mala revija. He is also the author of a book of criticism, Dismantling Time in Contemporary American Poetry (Agee Prize), and Acts of Mind: Interviews With Contemporary American Poets (Choice Award). His several dozen essays and reviews have appeared in Georgia Review, Verse, Contemporary Literature, Boundary 2, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner and numerous other journals, as well as anthologies such as The Planet on the Table: Writers Reading (2003) and John Ashbery (ed. Harold Bloom, 2004). In addition, he has written introductions to books of poems by four different Slovene Poets for various presses, and a special Slovene issue of Hunger Mountain (2003). He has also edited a special 50 page section of Poetry International (2004) on William Matthews with an introductory essay. In 2000 he was awarded the Order of Freedom Medal for literary and humanitarian work in the Balkans by the President of Slovenia and has received Guggenheim, NEA, NEH, 2 Witter-Bynner and Fulbright Fellowships, and 5 Pushcart Prizes. Winner of teaching awards at UT-Chattanooga and Vermont College MFA. The Last Voyage: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli (translated with Susan Thomas and Deborah Brown) appeared from Red Hen in December 2010, and the Selected Poems of Iztok Osojnik (edited) appeared in India in Spring 2010. Tomas Salamun's (edited, intro)When The Shadow Breaks appeared in Slovenia in fall 2010.The Heart's Many Doors will appear from Wings Press in November 2016 (see publications page).
OTHERNESS (to appear in Out of Place, Ashland Poetry Press, 2014)
It is part of our disguise that our dreams are lived by someone else.
Thales dreamt an eclipse in 570 BC and stopped a war. You arrived
subconsciously in a sentence I was reading from a book I never
finished. What we say gets its meaning from what we don't say.
Persephone kept her love hidden underground. So much of what
we feel is habit. We need to search for a way to say what is real:
the air filled with the simple pungency of cut grass, the flowers
barely breathing, the black and azure butterflies mating in clusters
by the side of the trail, the melancholy taste of blackberries
some bear had abandoned at my approach, the deer that lifts
its head unconcerned, whatever drifts away, whatever stays.
How do we keep our own dreams from touching each other?
I remember, as a boy, fearing for the snail as is crawled out
from its shell, I imagined for love. I couldn't coax it back.
What we do is a metaphor for what we don't do These are
the only ways to tell you what I mean. In Chagall's drawings
the faces of his lovers are surprised by their own sadness.
Their one dream is that they become angels smudged across the sky.
Their nights disguise themselves among the noontime shadows.
At the tomb, Mary Magdalene thought Jesus was a gardener.
What we know gets its meaning from what we don't know.
It is as if those Mayan cities still buried beneath the jungles
of Mexico suddenly revealed their secrets. Everything is
a metaphor. Those butterflies, for instance, I thought
they carried part of the sky on their wings. Or the cloud
rising like a ruined column from some ancient site supporting
the sky's idea of it. In a while the wind convinces it to collapse
as it does with so many of our dreams. What we know
gets is meaning from what we don't know. Memory betrays us:
the sentence I read was a piece of smooth ocean glass, it had nothing
to do with any of this. I was reading where Nicholas of Cusa
dreamt of spiritual beings living near the sun. Anaxamander knew
we emerged from sea creatures. What if I had begun with
those few snowy egrets this morning who seemed puzzled
or fearful at my presence? It had nothing to do with them, either.
What we love gets its meaning from what we don't love.
The air seems filled with fragments of some other day.
In a drawing I saw once, my words shivered for how the stag
gazed tenderly at the wolves, as if to forgive them as they ate
from its side. Never again have I dreamt such a perfect love.
(from Heartwall and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems)
It turns out the whole sky is a wall.
It turns out we all drink from history's footprints.
One day the stones seemed to open like flowers
and I walked over the orphaned ground for my brother.
Even now I can count every barb in the wire.
The stars were covered with sand.
The sandstorm had almost covered the body.
I dug around him, covered him myself.
Today, each memory is a cemetery that must be
tended. You have to stand clear of the briars of anger.
You have to wash revenge from your eyes.
Sophocles kept seeing me as a bird
whose nest is robbed, screeching hysterically.
In another place a flock of birds tear themselves apart
to warn the king of what will happen to his state.
I don't know who I am. I hardly said a word.
I think Sophocles knew what I might mean,
and was afraid. Everything I did was under
one swoop of the owl's wing. Who is anything
in that time? And he never listened.
Even the sentry's words dropped their meanings
and fumbled like schoolboys forgetting their lessons.
What I dug up was a new word for justice,
a whole new dictionary for love. But why did my own
love desert me? He came too late. He was
another foolish gesture from another age. What I tried
to cover with dust was the past, was anger, was revenge.
Now you can see it all in mass graves everywhere.
You can see it in the torture chambers,
the broken mosques and churches, the sniper scopes.
You can see it in the women raped by the thousand.
Who is any one of us in all that?
Who was I? I've become someone's idea of me.
You can no longer read the wax seal of the sun.
The trees no longer mention anything about the wind.
I don't see who could play me later on.
It turns out I am buried myself.
It turns out we are all buried alive
in the chamber of someone else's heart.
OBJECTS IN THIS MIRROR ARE
CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR
(from Heartwall and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems)
Because the dawn empties its pockets of our nightmares.
Because the wings of birds are dusty with fear.
Because another war has eaten its way
into the granary of stars. What can console us?
Is there so little left to love? Is belief just the poacher's
searchlight that always blinds us, and memory just
the tracer rounds of desire? Last night,
under the broken rudder of the moon, soldiers
cut a girl's finger off for the ring, then shot her and the boy
who tried to hide under a cloak of woods beyond their Kosovo
town. Listen to me,-- we have become words
without meanings, rituals learned from dried
river beds and the cellars of fire-bombed houses.
Excuses flutter their wings. Another mortar round is
arriving from the hills. How long would you say
it takes despair to file down a heart?
When, this morning, you woke beside me, you were mumbling
how yesterday our words seemed to brush over the marsh
grass the way those herons planed over
a morning of ground birds panicking in their nests.
When my father left me his GI compass, telling me
it was to keep me from losing myself, I never thought
where it had led him, or would lead me. Today,
beside you, I remembered simply the way you eat
a persimmon, and thought it would be impossible for each
drop of rain not to want to touch you. Maybe the names
of these simple objects, returning this morning
like falcons, will console us. Maybe we can love
not just within the darkness, but because of it. Ours is
the dream of the snail hoping to leave its track on the moon.
we are sending signals to worlds more distant
than what the radio astronomers can listen for, and yet--
And yet, what? Maybe your seeds of daylight will take root.
Maybe it is for you the sea lifts its shoulders to the moon,
for you the smoke of some battle takes the shape of a tree.
On your balconies of desire, in your alleyways of touch,
each object is a door opening like the luminous face of
a pocket watch. Maybe because of you the stars, too,
desire one another across their infinite,
impossible distances forever, so that it is not
unthinkable that some bird skims the narrow sky where
the sentry fires have dampened, where the soldier, stacking
guns in Death's courtyard, might look up, and remember
touching some story he carries in his pockets, a morning
like this blazing through the keyholes of history, seeing not
his enemy but those lovers, reaching for each other, reaching
towards any of us, their words splintering on the sky,
the gloves of their hearts looking for anyone's hands.
THE ANGELS OF 1912 AND 1972
(From Alive All Day and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems)
It is a long time since I flapped my wings,
a long time since I stood on the roof of my house
in Lawrence, Mass., or Michael's in No. Andover,
a little whiskey in one hand, the past slipping
through the other, a little closer to the heaven
of dreams, letting the autumn wind, or the spring
wind, or maybe just the invisible breath of some
woman lift me up. It is a long time since I have flown
like a swallow, or even the clumsy pigeon, into another
time, practicing miracles, dodging the branches
of lost words that cut against the sky,
and the rocks thrown by small boys, finding
the right nest under the eaves of some pastoral age
even the poets have forgotten, or fluttering
to a slow landing on some ledge above the buses
and simple walkers of this world. It is a long time.
From where we stood I could see the steeple of the French
church. Further back, it was 1912, and I could almost
see the tenements of the French women who worked
the fabric mills, weaving the huge bolts of cloth,
weaving the deadly dust into their lungs.
They could hardly fly, these angels. I could
almost see them marching down Essex street and
Canal street to the J.P. Stevens mill, the Essex mills,
pushing against the police horses for two bitter years,
thousands of them, asking for bread and roses, asking
something for the body, something for the soul.
If I did not fly so far I could see my mother's father,
years later, stumble to the same mills, nothing gained.
Or I could have looked ahead to this very year, and seen
Bob Houston and I standing on a roof in Bisbee, Arizona,
two desert sparrows flying blind against the night
once again, remembering the union workers herded
into boxcars and shipped from there into the desert
a few years after my French weavers flew down
Essex street. But it was 1972 and we still believed
we could stop the war with a rose, as if there were
only one war and not the dozens of little ones
with their nameless corpses scattered like pine cones.
It was 1972 and we stood on the roof like two angels
lamenting the news that John Berryman had leaned out
over the Washington Avenue bridge in Minneapolis,
flapped his broken wings, dropped to the banks below him.
I am a nuisance, he wrote, unable to find a rose for his soul.
We thought we could stand on that roof in 1972, two
Mercuries waiting to deliver his message to another time.
I should have seen what would happen. I should have seen
my own friend on his bridge, or the woman who could have
descended from one of those French weavers leaning
on the railing of the north canal in Lawrence because
all hope had flown away, or my own father starting
to forget my name that same year. If there is anything
I remember now, it is the way he looked at me in his
last year, wondering who I was, leaning back against
his own crushed wings, just a few years after he told me
to fight the draft, to take flight, or maybe he leaned
as if there was a word no one would ever speak
but which he knew I would believe in, that single word
I have been trying to say ever since, that means
whatever dream we are headed towards, for these
were the angels of 1912 and 1972, the ones we still
live with today, and when you love them, these swallows,
these desert sparrows, when you remember the lost fathers,
the soldiers, when you remember the poets and weavers,
when you bring your own love, the bread, the roses, -- this is flying.
NO TURN ON RED
(from Heartwall and Unauthorized Autobiography: New and Selected Poems)
It's enough to make the moon turn its face
the way these poets take a kind of bubble bath
in other people's pain. I mean, sure, the dumpsters
of our lives are filling with more mistakes
than we could ever measure. Whenever we reach into
the pockets of hope we pull out the lint of despair.
I mean, all I have to do is lift the eyelids
of the stars to see how distant you could become.
But that doesn't mean my idea of form is a kind of
twelve step approach to vision. I mean, I don't want
to contribute to the body count which, in our major journals,
averages 13.7 deaths/poem, counting major catastrophes and wars.
I'm not going to blame those bodies floating down some
river in Rawanda or Bosnia on Love's failures. But really,
it's not the deaths in those poems, it's the way Death arrives in a tux
and driving a Lamborghini, then says a few rhymed words
over his martini. It's a question of taste, really,
which means, a question for truth. I mean, if someone
says some beastly person enters her room the way Hitler
entered Paris I'd say she's shut her eyes like a Kurdish
tent collapsing under a gas attack, it makes about
much sense. Truth is too often a last line of defense,
like the way every hospital in America keeps a bag
of maggots on ice to eat away infection when the usual
antibiotics fail. The maggots do a better job
but aren't as elegant. Truth is just bad taste, then?
Not really. Listen to this: "Legless Boy Somersaults
Two Miles To Save Dad", reads the headline from Italy
in Weekly World News, a story that includes pictures
of the heroic but bloody torso of the boy. "Twisted
like a pretzel," the story goes on. Bad taste or
world class gymnastics? Which reminds me. One afternoon
I was sitting in a bar watching the Olympics-- the singles
of synchronized swimming-- how can that be true?
If that's so, why not full contact javelin? Uneven
table tennis? The 1500 meter dive? Even the relay dive?
Someone's going to say I digress? Look, this is a satire
which means, if you look up the original Latin, "mixed dish,"-
- you have to take a bite of everything. True, some would
argue it's the word we get Satyr from, but I don't like
to think of myself as some cloven hoofed, horny little
creature sniffing around trees. Well, it's taste, remember.
Besides my satire is set while waiting at Love's traffic
light, which makes it unique. So, I was saying you have
to follow truth's little detours --no, no, it was taste,
the heroic kid twisted like a pretzel. Pretzels are
metaphysical. Did you know a medieval Italian monk
invented them in the year 610 in the shape of crossed,
praying arms to reward his parish children.
"I like children," said W.C. Fields-- "if they're properly
cooked." Taste, and its fellow inmate, truth-- how do we
measure anything anymore? Everyone wants me to stick
to a few simple points, or maybe no point at all,
like the tepid broth those new formalists ladle into their
demi tasse. How can we write about anything--truth,
love, hope, taste, when someone says the moment, the basis
of all lyric poetry, of all measure and meter, is just
the equivalent of 10 billion atomic vibrations of the cesium
atom when its been excited by microwaves. Twilight chills
in the puddles left by evening's rain. The tiny spider
curled on the bulb begins to cast a huge shadow. No wonder
time is against us. In 1953, Dirty Harry, a "nuclear device,"
as the phrase goes, blossomed in Nevada's desert leaving
more than twice the fallout anyone predicted.
After thirty years no one admits the measurements.
Truth becomes a matter of "duck and cover." Even Love
refuses to come out of its shelter. In Sarajevo,
Dedran Smailovic plays Albinoni's Adagio outside
the bakery for 22 days where mortars killed 22,
and the papers are counting the days 'til the sniper
aims. You can already see the poets lined up on
poetry's drag strip revving up their 22 line elegies
in time for the New Yorker's deadline, so to speak.
Vision means, I guess, how far down the road of your
career you can see. And numbers not what Pope meant
by rhythm, but $5 per line. Pythagoras (b. 570 BC)
thought the world was made entirely of numbers. Truth,
he said, is the formula, and we are just the variables.
But this is from a guy who thought Homer's soul was
reborn in his. Later, that he had the soul of a peacock.
Who could trust him? How do we measure anything?
Each time they clean the standard kilogram bar in Sevres,
France, it loses a few atoms making everything else appear
a little heavier. That's why everything is suddenly
more somber. Love is sitting alone in a rented room
with its hangman's rope waiting for an answer
that's not going to come. All right, so I exaggerate, and
in bad taste. Let's say Love has put away its balance,
tape measure and nails and is poking around in its tin
lunch pail. So how can I measure how much I love you?
Except the way the willow measures the universe.
Except the way your hair is tangled among the stars.
The way the turtle's shell reflects the night's sky.
I'm not counting on anything anymore. Even the foot--
originally defined as the shoe length of whatever king
held your life, which made the poets scramble around
to define their own poetic feet. And truth is all this?
That's why it's good to have all these details as
a kind of yardstick to rap across the fingers
of bad taste. "I always keep a supply of stimulants
handy, " said Fields, "in case I see a snake;
which I also keep handy." In the end, you still need
something to measure, and maybe that's the problem
that makes living without love or truth so much pain.
I'd have to be crazy. Truth leaves its fingerprints
on everything we do. It's nearly 10 PM. Crazy.
here comes another poet embroidering his tragic
childhood with a few loosely lined mirrors.
I'm afraid for what comes next. The birds' warning
song runs up and down the spine of the storm. Who says
any love makes sense? The only thing left is
this little satire and its faceless clock for a soul.
You can't measure anything you want. The basis of all
cleverness is paranoia. 61% of readers never finish
the poem they start. 31% of Americans are afraid to speak
while making love. 57% of Americans have dreamt
of dying in a plane crash. One out of four
Americans is crazy. Look around at your three
best friends. If they're okay, you're in trouble.
Can you believe what the eloquence of these asteroids
tells us? that we are thrown through space from one
explosion to another? How amazing any love has endured!
In spite of the fact that so many tendrils of hope
wither in the sun, in spite of the way the flower now
seems to feed on the bees, that the lake seems to shackle
the sky, that the roots pull down the tree, in spite of the fact
that the clouds drag the earth towards some new final solution.
It doesn't matter where. There's a whole alphabet of hate,
a syntax of torture we can hardly understand. Petrified
promises take the day by the hand and lead her off
into some jungle. A couple of cigarettes walk towards
the dark end of a pier. A child's music shatters
like a broken violin. I used to think that any love we could
find is enough. It isn't. It isn't enough to plant our precious
gardens of hope in the sky. It isn't enough to write
by the fading candle of our eyes. It isn't enough to read
some future by the petals of the flower. Never enough.
We have to understand this love in the way the thorn defends it.
We can't let the moon rest its drowsy head on our rooftops.
We have to capture every wayward flash on the night sky and
not let our words burn up in the atmosphere. We have to follow
wherever they were heading. Sometimes I think we are all
hurtling through love at the speed of light. Maybe it is a question
of what galaxy we will crash into. Even now, you have to hear
what the arrow says before it strikes. You have to know
I will follow you over rivers of stone, even while you hold
my heart in your fist, that every love is filled with guilt, every love
tries to conquer a new world. I think sometimes we breathe
through the pores of the earth. It's the only way we know
the soul's body. It's the only way we can pass over the hobbled
roads of hate, the only way to shudder as the birds shudder
crossing the horizon. I am watching a bat scoop the emptiness
from the night, watching the hackberry embrace the moon.
Sometimes we have to hold hands with our own nightmares.
When I tell you that the voice of the nightingale turns dark
you have to understand what this love is trying to overcome,
you have to know that if you ever leave, if you ever disappear,
the sky would rip, and the stars would lose their way.
(adaptation from Petrarch from Half Lives)
Whoever hears in these scattered rhymes the raw sighs
my heart devoured when I was younger, or sees the soul's
tattered phrases hanging there unclaimed, don't scold
this art written by my other self, filled with confusion, not lies,
and forgive even this varied style I use now, that flies
as darkly as the crow, that scans the secret life of the mole,
that covers itself in Hope's blankets, that has always told
Love's truth, that now asks for pardon before its words run dry.
I know how rumor grew like a moth from a cocoon,
how some of you laughed when Shame stood at my door
for years, how Regret tracked me with her silent screams--
but also, and how each tree bears some fruit, how the moon
and the stars, the wind, the whole earth are images whose doors
open other worlds, if they only endure like the half-life of dreams.