When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.
When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.
When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.
When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.
When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.
When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.
Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.
What is this body as I fall asleep again?
What I pretended it was when I was small
A crowded vessel, a starship or submarine
Dark in its dark element, a breathing hull,
Arms at the flanks, the engine heart and brain
Pulsing, feet pointed like a diver's, the whole
Resolutely diving through the oblivion
Of night with living cargo. O carrier shell
That keeps your trusting passengers from All:
Some twenty thousand times now you have gone
Out into blackness tireless as a seal,
Blind always as a log, but plunging on
Across the reefs of coral that scrape the keel
O veteran immersed from toe to crown,
Buoy the population of the soul
Toward their destination before they drown.
Ode to Meaning
Dire one and desired one,
In an old allegory you would carry
A chained alphabet of tokens:
Ankh Badge Cross.
Engraved figure guarding a hallowed intaglio,
Jasper kinema of legendary Mind,
Naked omphalos pierced
By quills of rhyme or sense, torah-like: unborn
Vein of will, xenophile
Yearning out of Zero.
Untrusting I court you. Wavering
I seek your face, I read
That Crusoe's knife
Reeked of you, that to defile you
The soldier makes the rabbi spit on the torah.
"I'll drown my book" says Shakespeare.
Drowned walker, revenant.
After my mother fell on her head, she became
More than ever your sworn enemy. She spoke
Sometimes like a poet or critic of forty years later.
Or she spoke of the world as Thersites spoke of the heroes,
"I think they have swallowed one another. I
Would laugh at that miracle."
You also in the laughter, warrior angel:
Your helmet the zodiac, rocket-plumed
Your spear the beggar's finger pointing to the mouth
Your heel planted on the serpent Formulation
Your face a vapor, the wreath of cigarette smoke crowning
Bogart as he winces through it.
You not in the words, not even
Between the words, but a torsion,
A cleavage, a stirring.
You stirring even in the arctic ice,
Even at the dark ocean floor, even
In the cellular flesh of a stone.
Gas. Gossamer. My poker friends
Question your presence
In a poem by me, passing the magazine
One to another.
Not the stone and not the words, you
Like a veil over Arthur's headstone,
The passage from Proverbs he chose
While he was too ill to teach
And still well enough to read, I was
Beside the master craftsman
Delighting him day after day, ever
At play in his presenceyou
A soothing veil of distraction playing over
Dying Arthur playing in the hospital,
Thumbing the Bible, fuzzy from medication,
Ever courting your presence.
And you the prognosis,
You in the cough.
Gesturer, when is your spur, your cloud?
You in the airport rituals of greeting and parting.
Indicter, who is your claimant?
Bell at the gate. Spiderweb iron bridge.
Cloak, video, aroma, rue, what is your
Elected silence, where was your seed?
What is Imagination
But your lost child born to give birth to you?
Dire one. Desired one.
Or presence ever at play:
Let those scorn you who never
Starved in your dearth. If I
Dare to disparage
Your harp of shadows I taste
Wormwood and motor oil, I pour
Ashes on my head. You are the wound. You
Be the medicine.
On my birthday
Others are not the medicine for loneliness
When I was a child, I wanted to be a knight:
Helmeted, living by a noble code
Above the crowd, to serve, to carry a sword
And a shield blazoned with symbolic meanings:
Arrogant and generous like Launcelot du Lac,
The abducted infant and uncompanioned hero.
Did part of me grow up to be a type?
Those melancholy males who nearly twitch
With yearning for their silver armor, misplaced.
Humorless. Often the inviting lady,
Fatigued by all his brooding, slips away.
But somehow it was also all mixed up
With Washington astride his horse, the ardor
Of Lafayette, the elegant sad jokes
Of Lincoln, who freed the slaves and demonstrated
That Nature's were the only real noblemen:
It was the assassin that craved the coat of arms.
In his mid-fifties, a chevalier of care,
It was heroic to scribble on the train
The speech that disappointed many people:
Too strange, too brief. And then they called it "great."
Solitary in a vivid dream he saw his mourners,
His coffin swagged in bunting, the marble hall.
Older than Odysseus, older than Leopold Bloom.
Older than number forty-two wasJack
Roosevelt Robinsonwhen I watched him crouch
Trembling on the basepath between first and second
With arms extended, taunting the opponent.
And now older than he was the day he died
Depleted by his solitary ordeal,
A public man. In momentary wonder,
I see him burning again, beyond me, playing
A boyish country game in the gaping cities:
Brooklyn, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston.
Nineteen-nineteen to nineteen-seventy-two.
The heroes of antiquity were taught
By centaurs, ancient creatures who were half
Rational intelligence, half intuition:
Bearded and hooved, all male, a dying race,
Each solitary as the lawless Cyclops,
But pedagogical and bound by nature
To pass their lonely double knowledge on
To such as Odysseus, who learned to tell the story
Of his life, couched in as many lies as needed.
Among the epic bravos, a civic man.
The centaurs showed him truth in fabulation,
In every living city the haunted ruin.
Any body can die, evidently. Few
Go happily, irradiating joy,
Knowledge, love. Many
Need oblivion, painkillers,
Sweet time unafflicted,
X = your zenith.
Copyright © 2000 Robert Pinsky.
All rights reserved.