May 10, 2010

John Thomas

John Thomas (USA)

Born and raised in Baltimore, John Thomas came to Los Angeles in 1959, arriving in Venice, or what was then called Venice West, one of the thriving “Beat” communites. Thomas also lived, for some years in the early 1960s, in San Francisco and Northern California, before returning to Los Angeles in 1965.

Among his several books are john thomas john thomas (1972), El vecchio Strawinsky prova con corchestra (1975), Epopoeia and the Decay of Satire (1976), and (with Robert Crosson and Paul Vangelisti), Abandoned Latitudes (1983).


john thomas john thomas (Los Angeles: Red Hill Press, 1972); Il vecchio Strawinsky prova con orchestra (Torino, Italy: Edizioni Geiger, 1975); Epopoeia and the Decay of Satire (Los Angeles: Red Hill Press, 1976); from Patagonia in Abandoned Latitudes (with Robert Crosson and Paul Vangelisti) (San Francisco: Invisible City, no. 3, 1983).

Underwater Interlude

fast in the grip
of the starfish
fifty fathoms down
I feel the pulse
deep inside her my lips
on the arch of her foot I
see the day flow away
like a slow fuse and up
up faraway up there
quiver the great blue screens!

(from Temblor, 1985)

They’re Wrong to Call It the Little Death and To Hell with the Here and Now

“I do not believe in the witchcraft
she practices on me….”

we take our pleasure, it is dark and regal
and strange, she could be Guinivere
risking Hell and her crown an damn their eyes
it’s worth it ten times over and I
I hope to die at the last thrust lost
in her smell of sweat and vanilla we pause
I want her again but we pause and
casually she tears off a toenail
drawing blood then slyly tucks it
under my mattress: scary but
so moving: Guinivere
to the life

then she shifts a lazy shoulder and
Tara Tintagel Lyonesee the
whole damned Bronze Age
rolls up against me
her fingers lace into mine
on the wet tuft of her sex I
want her again our two hands become
one great paw I’m into her again
don’t know where any longer but
into her Christ! is this Africa?
I smell blood and grass I search
her face as I come the lioness
glows in the antelope’s eye

(from Temblor, 1985)

As I Write These Words

Things keep happening, you know. As I write
these words, Hannibal is still crossing the Alps;
Billie Holliday still sings “For All We Know”
at the old Five Spot. The dam is broken,
and the great slow muddy flood swells behind me
in ponderous pursuit. The same flower
blooms and blooms again, forever. Endlessly,
I scrub the blood from my shaking hands.
Endlessly, the words pile up, smothering
the poem. Night falls, night falls, night falls,
and I cannot stop this dying.

(from “Los Inventions of the Night,” Temblor, 1988)


‘The layered dung of ten thousand
years is not to be understood as
different from any rainbow.”
from the Kali-Sutra

even in the dream
he walks the darkness silently
naked on wet grass
among many sleeping forms

the blackness of the stream
the pale averted face
of a sinking half moon

antique postures
dim and complicated rhythms

he walks in darkness
to the water’s edge
where a small boat lies in the reeds
it is marked with the trident sign of Vishnu
it has just arrived
or will soon drift off forever

in the morning
the children will not find him here
where the water flows both ways
and bubbles up through yellow sand
to soak him silver at the brim

(from “Lost Inventions of the Night,” Temblor, 1988)

The Secret Instructions

This colossal marble head, fragment
of an earlier time thrown down
on its side so long ago:
it rests beside the dark pool,
embedded to the cheek.

Weeds, all youth and wasteful vigor,
mask its prognathous face,
crafty lip, proud life of brown,
the one milky eye unaware
of its blindness. Clearly,

something happened in this place
where I squat, a circus ape in rags.
twigs and tinsel in my hair. Something terrible,
once, in this place. The air is thick with whispered
message, and even apes must breathe.

There are no symbols here (my wishes
count for nothing), simply earth,
real weeds, the pool—real,
one can lap its icy water—
and this blind and monstrous teste

which now I, obedient,
strong with the strength of sleep,
heave and tumble over the grassy verge.
The great stone head sinks slowly
into the green depths of the dream.

The last ripples smoothe away and silence,
the last unearned instruction, closes over.

(from “Lost Inventions of the Night,” Temblor, 1988)

Dead Letter

The journey was pleasant enough, but
I traveled too far, crossed
some invisible, unposted frontier
and here I am, here I have been—
for years? Sorry. I cannot read
their enigmatic calendars.

To be a foreigner here, always.
The language is quite opaque.
Pleasant-sounding at first, but soon
one notices the mocking interrogatories.

Sleep does not refresh me here.
To dream long, portentous conversations
in a language one does not understand—
unsettling. I always wake up sand and anxious.
What did he say? What
did I answer? Too late.

I sit in a café at an oddly-carpentered table,
drinking…something. What they always serve me.
I watch the people come and go, crossing
the square on urgent but mysterious errands.
If I knew how to ask, “Where
are you going, and why?” they would stop and
look at me with their harlequin eyes,
and what their looks would tell me
I do not care to know.

The games the children play
are “wrong” somehow, and menacing.
Are they really games, really

Forgive this poetical touch, but
even the trees sing
different songs here. I can
only guess what they might mean.
They worry me the most, I think,
these trees. I always felt
at least I understood trees.

Soon I shall fold these pages and seal them
in an envelope on which I shall inscribe
some old familiar address. I do this
every day. There is a mailbox across the square,
and it eats my envelopes. I do not know
where they go. Goodbye. The trees
are singing again.

from “Lost Inventions of the Night,” Temblor, 1988)

Will Alexander

Will Alexander [USA]

Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Will Alexander grew up around the violence that has plagued this area for decades. The only child of working class parents, he attended Washington High School, avidly participating in school sports. In 1972 he graduated from the University of California Los Angeles with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing.

In the mid-1970s the noted Black poet, K. Curtis Lyle, a founding member of the Watts Writers Workshop, met with Alexander and others at his home and at an incense business run by musicians Ray and Ernest Straughter. This period was also marked by a twelve hour dialogue in San Francisco with the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia which had an enormous effect on him. Through those gatherings Alexander began confirming the power of works of his readings of Bob Kaufman, Octavio Paz, and Francophone Negritude writers such as Aimé Cesaire and Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo--all poets who would strongly influence his subsequent poetry and, later, the visual art he had begun creating. Their themes of cosmic isolation from society and interior discovery strongly affected him, and helped him to what he describes as an “alchemical metamorphosis,” which drew him away from his intense involvement in sports to his participation in the arts.

In 1987 he published his first book, Vertical Rainbow Climber, which already contained the heady mix of metaphor and sophisticated language that characterizes so much of his work. A short chapbook, Arcane Lavender Morals, followed in 1994, with new books-including The Stratospheric Canticles, Asia & Haiti, Above the Human Nerve Domain, and Towards the Primeval Lightning Field following throughout the 1990s. In 2009 New Directions published Alexander's collection of poetry, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome. His writing represents a complex distillation of images from many fields, including botany, astronomy, psychology, physiology, mysticism, and history. He has also written novels and dramas.

Alexander has performed throughout the country, and has taught courses at the University of California at San Diego, Naropa in Boulder, Colorado, and Hofstra University. He was the recipient of a Whiting Fellowship for Poetry in 2001 and a California Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry in 2002.


Vertical Rainbow Climber (Aptos, California: Jazz Press, 1987); Archane Lavender Morals (Buffalo: Leave Books, 1994); The Stratospheric Canticles (Berkeley: Pantograph Press, 1995); Asia & Haiti (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995); Above the Human Nerve Domain (New York: Pavement Saw Press, 1998); Towards the Primeval Lightening Field (Oakland: O Books, 1998); The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (New York: New Directions, 2009)

For a large selection of Alexander's readings on tape, click below:

from “Haiti”

“...these undistingushed dead
become known as that anonymous
heritage, les Morts.”
-Maya Deren
Divine Horesement: The Living Gods of Haiti

with blackened altering transmissives
with burning nerve length & schisms
twisted in piercing soils
in dark pre-maturity & rage

we the dead
we the pressure & the cyclone of Haiti
savage with usurption
with clastrophobia by scarob
by blood loss & groaning
we who’ve taken spikes from our entrails
from suns we’ve had exploded in our nostrils
we who were spawned in harassment
in catastrophic silicate meanderings
in acidic neural complexity
corrupted & slashed
in lightless x-ray vacuums

we who swelter in cold & heatless malachite
in blatent triangle missives
in throughtless inversion & drought
above burning shells of crab
above a flood of random burial law
like cobras
or gazelles
or eaglets ruined in stunted cemetary icon

it is we who speak
with a sun of splinters spewing from our heart
from our thorax burning with intestinal moray explosion
the Africa of Songhai & Mali
of original reptile wisdom
the first gatherers of wool
through sun
through apertures spinning
in a ruptured lighning gorge

the dead
who blister
who channel poltergeists from lightless peeling rums
as spies
as wild omega charges
beyond ruthless murdering dossiers
beyond the Tontons & their terror
we float
above abcess torrents
above the bloody belladonnas
& the microbes & their seas
so we emit
lesser bodies of dying
lesser holocaust driftings
therefore we burn
in the bloodless heat of whispers
in stony cloves & disjunctives
in raw botanical monsoons

whenever the crops boil & disease themselves as acid
there is malaria by forgery
starvation under gemstone
as if treachery had been launched
throughout a shadow of bodies
throughout the reign of ominous modernity
where we shift between sulphur & limbo
there is a discourse of bodies
of chapaarral by misnomer
of splendiferous mirage
& blistering anti-edict

we the dead
transcripting rum & vapor
with demonish lisping trot
with slavos
by diorama & plague
by the very principle of pain
split apart & cyclonic

as for the souls of our two former killers
Papa Doc
with his rotted & greenish blood
with his consort
the Madame
ailing in her rubies & bones
we accuse them
with every quarter of their accursed mandibles
with every dispicable vibration as owls
their gestures
their veins as leopards turned around in a mirror
grown from themselves lashing out as monsters

we see them now
throughut a wrenching prolapse through the kingdoms of hell
caged by the demons
within the macerated bones of mutual self-bleeding...

(from Asia & Haiti, 1995)

The Impalpable Brush Fire Singer

he is not an urn singer
nor does he carry on rapport
with negative forces within extinction

he is the brush fire singer
who projects from his heart
the sound of insidious subsduction
of blank anomaly as posture
of opaque density as ash

he distanced from prone ventriloqual stammer
from flesh
& habit
& drought

the performer
part poltergeis & Orisha
part broken in-cellular dove
part glance from floating Mongol bastions

where the spires are butane
where their photographic fractals are impalnted with hypnosis

because he allegedly embodies
a green necrotic umber
more like a vertical flash or a farad
posing like a tempest in a human chromium palace

therefore his sound
a dazed simoom in a guantlet
a blizzard of birds burned at the touch of old maelstroms

because he gives off the ordour of storms
this universal Orisha
like a sun that falls from a compost of dimness
out of de-productive hydrogen sums
out of lightless fissures which boil outside the planet

he sings at a certain pitch
which has evolved beyond the potter’s field
beyond a tragic hummingbird’s cirrhosis
surmounting primeval flaw
surmounting fire which forms in irreplaceable disjunction

under certain formations of the zodiac he is listless
he intones without impact
he synodic revelations no longer of the law
of measured palpable destinations
because he sings in such a silence
that even the Rishis can’t ignore

as though
the hollow power which re-arises from nothingness
perpetually convinces
like a vacuum which splits within the spinning arc of an
intangible solar candle

such power can never be confusedly re-traced
it adumbrates & blazes
like a glossary of suns
so that each viral drill
each forge
casts a feeling
which in-saturates a pressure
bringing to distance a hidden & elided polarity

like a subjective skill
corroded & advanced
he sings
beyond the grip of a paralytic nexus
where blood shifts
beyond the magnet of volume
where the nerves no longer resonate
inside an octagonal maze
stung at its source by piranhas

(from Above the Human Nerve Domain, 1999)

Inside the Ghost Volcano

With the body of a morbid hanging doll
my aura burns
by shifts
by ambles
by mirages

by the sun in its primordial morass
summoned from a spectral locust feast

through electric bartering grammes
as if a spectrum had been transmogrified
across the sum of exploded solar windows
amidst motions of viral infamy
of sudden discharge pontoons
of magical lyncean sails above ships of pure vitrescence

by empty Minoan game dogs
debating oxygen as form
debating menace as ideal
as one listens to fire
in dense eruptional gullet
in hanging hydrogen mirrors
so that each image is shifted
back & forth
between gales & the apparition of gales

so that
unicorns from Çatal Hüyük
cease to condense as forms of the earth
but take on the body of enigma as transparence
as blackened meteor in abstraction
the sun no longer quantified
by strange caledrical posses
but becomes
balletic differential
which ceases to quarrel
with the magic of fragment as schism

as mist
as a power cast before oasis

because the game dogs
the unicorn mirrors
spun as a wakeless ocular thirst
as a conjured distance
evolved from the force of a aclarified activity

like a darkened water as shock
as scale which looms as humidity
then the eyes always focused
as pleas for hushed exhibits

(from Above the Human Nerve Domain, 1999)

Impulse & Nothingness

These dense geranium surges of thought
protracted through steaming anthrax waters
concerned with the coronal aspects of contingency
these sabbatical athanors in which nothingness looms
without image
without the doctrinal plummage of a fixed event
without the mesmeric square of Talmudic rigidity
when one is transfixed by intention
by the the Messianic force fused with the illusive intensity
of impulse
shot into the grainy broach of nothingness

there exists the sense of bleached equators
the suicidal aching of secondary sunfish

one then gives off the odour of a pentacostal heresy
& one no longer lives in an aura of the weakened
with the weakened
one stands like a bolt
facing the electrical debris of an ochlocracy in pain
staggered by the knife of its own surgeon’s riddles
by a rabid scalpel cutting at its ribs
by a deboned pleurisy rumbling in its vision

as I reach into this nothingness
I am abandoned by associates
psychically spat upon by contemporaries
a reflex
against one condemned by the interests
of the secular nerve field

this I
a target
with an intense circulation of acid in the veins

so everything that I snare
always half plunged into eclipse
all my description
subject to electro-ballistical analysis
an analysis of my own achievement
which ironically has no power to engulf me

so I remain suspended
between light & the imageless arcana of extinction
& the emotions
those electrical cadavers
weave themselves like sickened medicine in my thorax

as to my name
it has become an exploded ravens’ dyscrasia
an excresence
walking around with my eyes
like a series of neurological sunspots

& in speaking
I remain corroded with intensive tedium rejoinders
with my bones squirming at an angle of pathological
nightmare edicts
a cauldron of metacarpel tsunamis
as a result
I feed on the carking magnificence of lonliness
on the nomadology of cacti & sores

I count my companions as enemies
those obedient nomenciator’s covering up those abbreviated
prolusory murders of the spirit

& so as a scar
as one given up to the guerilla domain of
cosmic prolepsis
I am always a figure
a metal hormone found in a basket
floating on broken sea bird’s blood

on both sides of my eyes a parenthetical numbness
a painful but voided exogen climaterics
in which I wander through intensive flytrap grasses
weaving myself to death while humming in-doctrinal ballets
a shapeless fumatory witness
suffering like a cipher
or a metamorphic anagram
spying on shapes in the darkness

(from Impulse & Nothing, unpublished)


From “Haiti”
Reprinted from Asia and Haiti (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995). Copyright ©1995 by Will Alexander. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press.

“The Impalpable Brush Fire Singer” and “Inside the Ghost Volcano”
Reprinted from Above the Human Nerve Domain (New York: Pavement Saw Press, 1998). Copyright ©1998 by Will Alexander. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Impulse and Nothingness”
Reprinted from the manuscript, “Impulse and Nothingness,” unpublished. Copyright ©2004 by Will Alexander. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers [USA]

Robinson Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a Presbyterian minister and professor of the Old Testatment, who traveled widely in Europe with his family. Accordingly, much of Jeffers education took place in European boardings schools in Leipzig, Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich. In 1902 Jeffers entered the University of West Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh); the young man had already mastered French, German, Greek, and Latin.

Upon his family’s move to Los Angeles, Jeffers shifted to Occidental College, from which he graduated in 1905. He entered graduate school at the University of Southern California as a student of literature. The following year he returned to Switzerland where, at the University of Zurich, he took courses in philosophy and literature.

Returning the following year to USC, he was admitted to the medical school, but shifted in 1910 to the University of Washington to study forestry.

In 1906 he had met Una Call Kuster, who at the time, three years his senior, was married to a prominent Los Angeles attorney. By 1913 Kuster had obtained a divorce, and the two were married in August of that year. The previous year Jeffers had published his first book of poetry, Flagons and Apples, collection of love poems. But now, as the couple settled in Carmel on the Monterey coast of California, and as he began construction of a stone house and observation tower, he became enchanted with the California people and landscape. In 1916 he published Californians, and in 1924 a collection centered on the biblical story of King David’s daughter, Tamar and Other Poems. The book received acclaim from many, including T. S. Eliot and others, and helped to establish Jeffers reputation.

His books of the mid and later 1920s—The Women at Point Sur (1925), Cawdor (1928), and Poems (1928)—centered on the flora and fauna of California and emphasized his themes of man’s destruction of nature and self.

With his knowledge of Greek and Latin, Jeffers was naturally attracted to the great tragedys, and beginning in the late 1930s through the 1950s, he adapted numerous Greek tragedies, including Medea, staged in 1946 and 1965, The Tower Beyond Tragedy, based on Aeshylus’s Oresteia, and The Cretan Woman (1951), based on Hippolytus of Euripides. During this period his beloved Una died of cancer.

In 1954, Jeffers published a moving eulogy to her, Hungerfield and Other Poems. Jeffers died in 1964.


Flagons and Apples (Los Angeles: Grafton, 1912); Californians (New York: Macmillan, 1916); Tamar and Other Poems (New York: P. G. Boyle, 1924); Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925 / London: Leonard and Virigina Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1928); The Women at Point Sur (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927); Cawdor and Other Poems (New York: H. Liveright, 1928); Poems (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1928); Dear Judas and Other Poems (New York: H. Liveright, 1929); Descent to the Dead: Poems Written In Ireland and Great Britain (New York: Random House, 1931); Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems (New York: Liveright, 1932); Give Your Heart to the Hawks (New York: Random House, 1933); Solstice and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1935); Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1937); The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House, 1938); Be Angry at the Sun (New York: Random House, 1941); The Double Axe and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1948); Hungerfield and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1954); The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1963); The Alpine Christ and Other Poems (Aromas, California: Cayucos Books, 1973); Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917-1922 (Monterey, California: Cayucos Books, 1974); Granite & Cypress: Robbings from the Rock (Santa Cruz: University of California, 1975); The Double Axe and Other Poems, Including Eleven Suppressed Poems (New York: Liveright, 1977); Selected Poems, ed. by Colin Falck (Manchester, England: Carcanet, 1987); The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Tim Hunt (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988-2001); The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. by Tim Hunt (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001); Stones of the Sur, ed. by James Karman (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001)

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson [USA]

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in 1869 in Head Tide, Maine, and grew up in Gardiner in the same state—the Tilbury Town of his poems. From 1891 to 1893 he studied at Harvard University, and then attempted various jobs upon the death of his father and his brother Herman’s alcoholism For nearly thirty years he live mostly at home, working as a clerk in New York’s Customs House and writing poetry. He was helped, in part, by Mrs. Edward MacDowell, wife of the noted American composer, who turned her home, Hillcrest, into an artists’ and writers’ colony.

His first book of poetry, The Torrent and The Night Before, was privately printed, but was revised and republished by a Boston publisher the following year as The Children of the Night (1987). This book contains some of Robinson’s most noted work. Many of Robinson’s other publications throughout the years were devoted to legendary and historical figures in which he presented his characters in novelistic and psychological fashion. His primary influence on poets of this period might be said to be Robert Frost, who similarly uses the monologue and dialogue as a poetic narrative tool. Although he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize three times during his life, and is now recognized by some critics as the first great Modern American poet, Robinson’s work, with its rhymed meter, now seems dated to many readers. He died in New York City in 1935.


The Torrent and The Night Before (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Privately printed, 1896); The Children of the Night (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1897); Captain Craig (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1902); The Town Down the River (New York: Scribners, 1910); The Man Against the Sky (New York: Macmillan, 1916); Merlin (New York: Macmillan, 1917); Lancelot (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1920); Avon’s Harvest (New York: Macmillan, 1921); Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1921; London: Cecil Palmer, 1922); Roman Bartholow (New York: Macmillan, 1923; London: Cecil Palmer, 1923); The Man Who Died Twice (New York: Macmillan, 1924; London: Cecil Palmer, 1924); Dionysus in Doubt (New York: Macmillan, 1925); Tristam (New York: Macmilan, 1927; London: Gollancz, 1928); Collected Poems (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Dunster House, 1927); Sonnets, 1889-1917 (New York: Crosby Gaige, 1928); Fortunatus (Reno: Slide Mountain Press, 1928); Modred (New York: Brick Row Bookshop, 1929); Cavender’s House (New York: Macmillan, 1929; London: Hogarth Press, 1930); Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1930); The Glory of the Nightingales (New York: Macmillan, 1930); Selected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1931); Matthias at the Door (New York: Macmillan, 1931); Nicodemus (New York: Macmillan, 1932); Talifer (New York: Macmillan, 1933); Amaranth (New York: Macmillan, 1934); King Jasper (New York: Macmillan, 1935); Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1937); Selected Early Poems and Letters, edited by Charles T. Davis (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960); Uncollected Poems and Prose, edited by Richard Cary (Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1975)

Luke Havergal

Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal—
Luke Havergal.

No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes;
But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies—
In eastern skies.

Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way to where she is,
Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this—
To tell you this.

There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go, for the winds are tearing them away,—
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal—
Luke Havergal.

(from The Torrent and The Night Before, 1896, revised in The Children of the Night, 1897)


I cannot find my way: there is no star
In all the shrouded heavens anywhere;
Ad there is not a whisper in the air
Of any living voice but one so far
That I can hear it only as a bar
Of lost, imperial music, played when fair
And angel fingers wove, and unaware,
Dead leaves to garlands where no roses are.

No, there is not a glimmer, not a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The back and awful chaos of the night;
For through it all—above, beyond it all—
I know the far-sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the Light.

(from The Torrent and The Night Before, 1896, revised in The Children of the Night, 1897)

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

(from The Children of the Night, 1897)

Miniver Cheevy

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam’s neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyes a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And though about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

(from The Town Down the River, 1910)

Eros Turannos

She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.

Between a blurred sagacity
That once had power to sound him,
And Love, that will not let him be
The Judas that she found him,
Her pride assuages her almost,
As if it were alone the cost.—
He sees that he will not be lost,
And waits and looks around him.

A sense of ocean and old trees
Envelops and allures him;
Tradition, touching all he sees,
Beguiles and reassures him;
And all her doubts of what he says
Are dimmed with what she knows of days—
Till even prejudice delays
And fades, and she secures him.

The falling leaf inaugurates
The reign of her confusion;
The pounding wave reverberates
The dirge of her illusion;
And home, where passion lived and died,
Becomes a place where she can hide,
Wile all the town and harbor side
Vibrate with her seclusion.

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
Were told, or ever could be;
We’ll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen,—
As if we guessed what hers have been,
Or what they are or would be.

Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea,
Where down the blind are driven.

(from The Man Against the Sky, 1916)

Abraham Sutzkever

Sutzkever and his poet friend Shmerke Katcherginsky

Abraham Sutzkever (b. Lithuania/Israel) 1913-2010


Abraham Sutzkever Selected Poetry and Prose, translated from the Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav, with an Introduction by Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)

Abraham Sutzkever—who died early this year on January 20th at the age of 96—was, as The New York Times obituary mentioned, one of "the great Yiddish poets of his generation." But to describe him in only that way is to miss much of his larger contribution to literary history. Indeed, as Benjamin Harshav begins his Introduction to Sutzkever: Life and Poetry, "Sutzkever is one of the great poets of the twentieth century." Harshav adds:

I do not say this lightly. He is not a philosophical poet; there was no sophisticated philosophy in Jewish culture. Nor is he a descriptive poet; the language of Modernism was opposed to description, and
the fictional worlds of Sutzkever's poetry are presented through evocation and allusion rather than direct statement. But the language of his poetry—the profound sound orchestration and the metaphorical
and mythopoeic imagery—is as dense, unmediated, and suggestive as that in the poetry of Mandelstam or Rilke. And his responses to historical reality are as sharp as any in the verse of Brecht. The paradoxical amalgam of these two extremes of twentieth-century poetry—self-focused poetic language and ideological engagement—is successful in Sutzkever's work because both are presented through the events of
the poet's own biography.

And what a biography that was! Born in 1913 in Smorgoń, Lithuania, southwest of Vilna, Sutzkever and his family were forced during his second year of birth to leave the city with all other Jews within twenty-four hours, after which the city was burned to the ground, the Russian high command fearing them as German "spies."

Through connections with other travelers, the Sutzkevers ended up in Omsk in western Siberia, where Abraham lived until seven years of age, when his father died of heart failure. The brutally cold, but spectacularly beautiful landscape, would haunt Sutzkever's poetry for the rest of his life, resulting in what he himself described as "the snow-sounds falling in my head," and expressed most powerfully in poems such as "Frozen Jews":

They come over me, blue bones in a row—
Frozen Jews over plains of snow.

With the end of the Russian Civil War, Sutzkever's mother Reine returned to Lithuania with her three children, settling in Vilna. During those same years, Vilna became a center for Jewish and Yiddish-language activities. For generations since the fourteenth century, Jews had migrated into the area around Vilna until by the eighteenth century this last pagan country in Europe became one of the most important centers for Jewish learning in the world. Although the actual population of Jewish citizens in Vilna was small (at the beginning of World War II, 60,000 Jews lived in the city, with refugees from Poland adding another 20,000 more) as Harshav makes clear,"the area it dominated was immense."

People would come from surrounding towns and villages to trade or study and return to their hometowns or move to the West, and still be proud of their "Vilna" origins. The parents of the Vilna Gaon;
the Haskalah historian of Vilna, Rashi Fin; the founders of YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute), Max Weinreich and Zelig Kalmanovich; the Yiddish poet Sutzkever and the Hebrew poet Abba Kovner; and
the Polish poets Michiewicz and Milosz were not born in Vilna itself, though their names are linked with that cultural center. Jerusalem of Lithuania was the symbolic focus and aristocratic pride of a vast,
extraterritorial Jewish empire.

Even as a thirteen year-old in Vilna, Sutzkever began writing poetry, first in Hebrew and then—influenced, in part, by the Yiddish linguist and YIVO director, Max Weinreich— in Yiddish. Self-taught, the young Abraham even attempted poetry in Old Yiddish and translated the Yiddish romance Bove Bukh, written in Venice in 1508. Joining the Vilna Jewish scouts' Di Bin (the Bee) Sutkever dedicated himself, like his fellow scouts, to guard secular Yiddish culture. A close friendship with Miki Chernikhov (whose family read Evgeny Onegin) introduced the young Abrasha to other Russian Symbolist poets, Edgar Allen Poe and the Polish Romantic poets such as Cyprian Norwid. One might describe this brief period as a "ecstatic" time. As Sutzkever described just such activities in his Ecstasies:

When with eyes shut
I wrote a poem, suddenly
My hand got burned,
And when I started
From that black fire,
The paper breathed
A name like a lily: God.
But my pen, in awe and wonder,
Crossed out the word
And wrote instead
A more familiar word: Man.

Since then, a voice unheard
Haunts me like an unseen bird
That pecks, pecks at my soul's door:
—Is that what you traded me for?

Sutkever's group of friends, known as "The Young Vilna Group," included the American Yiddish novelist Joseph Opatoshu, Shmerke Katcherginsky, painter Ben-Zion Michtom, Y. Opatoshu, Chiam Grade, Elchonon Vogler, Moshe Levin, Peretz Mirasky, Shimshon Kaban, and Leyzer Volf. Sutkever's first book was published by the Yiddish Writers' Union in Warsaw, and in 1940, his important book of poetry, Vladiks (From the Forest), was published in Lithuania.
In September 1939, soon after Sutzkever's marriage, Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Russians entering Vilna, arresting many Jewish leaders, and turning over the city to independent Lithuania, who renamed the city Vilnius.

On June 22, 1941 the Germans attacked, occupying Vilna two days later. Immediately over 100,000 Jews of the region were liquidated, and those 20,000 left were crammed into a Vilna ghetto of only seven streets. Daily, Jewish men were arrested off the streets and taken to camps or swept into forced labor. Sutzkever hid in his mother's Snipishok apartment, for weeks living in a crawl space under the house's roof. His wife Freydke, having heard of a search for him, came to take him away, but he could not even walk. Soon after, however, he joined Jewish worker brigades, hiding in various spots. But on September 5, 1941 he and two others were captured by the Lithuanians, forced to dig their graves, and were about to be shot. Their countrymen, however, intentionally aimed over their heads, secreting them to hiding places in the ghetto. There Sutzkever rejoined his mother and wife. Having to flee one ghetto for another, he left his mother in a hiding place, but when he returned to free her, she was gone, the location having been discovered and its inhabitants taken off. Freydke, meanwhile, bore their son in the Ghetto hospital, an act that was forbidden; the Germans poisoned the child.

Joining a group of intellectuals who worked each day outside the ghetto at the YIVO building, Sutzkever was set to work on cataloguing the books assembled by the Germans on Jewish history, and designating the most important works for shipment to Germany. Sutzkever and his friends, however, secretly smuggled hundreds of these rare books into the ghetto, burying them. Many of these materials later made it to Moscow or were uncovered in Vilna after the War, with help from Sutzkever and others.

It was also at YIVO where Sutzkever was smuggled his first machine gun, and later, along with his wife and Shmerke Katcherginsky, he left the ghetto upon the ghetto uprising, joining the partisans led by Zelda, who led forays from the surrounding forests. Here the most physically able fought on, while women and children were abandoned in the ghetto to die or lived in the forests, left to their own devices. Sutzkever and Katcherginsky were assigned to write the brigade's history. Soon thereafter, Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg arranged for the Sutzkevers' rescue by plane:

When they finally reached the other partisan brigade, a small
plane landed on the ice-covered lake. Sutzkever sat in its
opening, with Freydke tied to his knees, and two more partisans
were stuck in the rear. The plane veered though the heavy fire
of the German front, diving suddenly, and eventually emerging
on the Soviet side.

"If I didn't write, I wouldn't live," announced Sutzkever in a 1985 New York Times interview. "When I was in the Vilna ghetto, I believed, as an observant Jew believes in the Messiah, that as long as I was writing, was able to be a poet, I would have a weapon against death."

In all of Sutzkever's writing, accordingly, there is the spectre of horror, the fear of destruction simultaneously at moments of peace and great beauty.

From the Forest

Of grass and flowers, the substance dissolves
Into drops of dew.
And he who wants can see
The subtle play
Of black and fire, silver and blue.
All around,
Trees sleep, sprawling on the ground,
Their shadows grow high.
The air is cool and soft
As dry
Silent, calm,
Mute paths kiss.
Green glows wink at you.
A nest trembles,
A spring shines.
You see:
Worlds spin on their axes
And dews are mirrors for the cosmos

If someone screamed right now,
All the skies would dissolve
In cosmic panic.
But all is hush. Just shadows
Cast by the spirited nightingale:
Following the star notes, he reveals
His lonely night
And his travail.

Los Angeles, May 9, 2010


Lider (Varshe: Bibliotek fun Yidishn pen-klub, 1937); Valdiks (Vilne: Aroysgegebn fun Yidishen literatn-fareyn un pen-klub, 1940); Di festung: Lider un poemes (New York: Ikuf, 1945); Lider fun geto (New York: Ikuf farlag, 1946); Fun Vilner gheto (Moscow: Melukhefaralg "Der emes", 1946); Geheymshtot (1948); Sibir: Po'emah (Jerushalayim: Bosd Byalik, 1952); Oazis (Tel-Aiviv: Farlag Y. L. Perets, 1960); 'Ir ha-setarim: po'emah (Tel Aviv: 'Am 'oved, 1963); Poetishe verk (Tel-Aviv: Yoyvl komitet, 1963); Lider fun yam ha-moves: Fun Vilner Geto, vald, un vander (Tel-Aviv: Farlag Bergen-Belzen, 1968); Firkantike oysyes un moyfsim: Lider un poems, 1964-1967 (Tel-Aviv: Di Goldene Keyt, 1968); Lider fun togbukh (Tel-Aviv: Farlag di Goldene keyt, 1986); Tsaytike penemer (Tel-Aviv: Y. L. Perets, 1970).


Siberia: A Poem (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1961); Burnt Pears: Ghetto Poems of Abraham Stuzkever, trans. by Seymour Mayne (Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1981); The Fiddle Rose: Poems 1970-1972, trans. by Ruth Whitman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990); A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Laughter Beneath the Forest: Poems from Old and Recent Manuscripts by Abraham Sutzkever, Barnett Zumoff (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing, 1996); Beneath the Trees: Poems (Millwood, New York, 2003); From Elephants by Night: Poems of Africa (Millwood, New York: Haybarn Press, 2005).