Reading: The Evening Of The Mind by Donald Justice

Donald Justice (1925-2004) was a quietly influential poet from Iowa with a sharp and versatile mind. He wrote free form poetry as well as sonnets, sestinas and villanelles. His Selected Poems won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. Here is The evening of the mind:

The evening of the mind

Now comes the evening of the mind.
Here are the fireflies twitching in the blood;
Here is the shadow moving down the page
Where you sit reading by the garden wall.
Now the dwarf peach trees, nailed to their trellises,
Shudder and droop. Your know their voices now,
Faintly the martyred peaches crying out
Your name, the name nobody knows but you.
It is the aura and the coming on.
It is the thing descending, circling, here.
And now it puts a claw out and you take it.
Thankfully in your lap you take it, so.

You said you would not go away again,
You did not want to go away — and yet,
It is as if you stood out on the dock
Watching a little boat drift out
Beyond the sawgrass shallows, the dead fish …
And you were in it, skimming past old snags,
Beyond, beyond, under a brazen sky
As soundless as a gong before it’s struck —
Suspended how? — and now they strike it, now
The ether dream of five-years-old repeats, repeats,
And you must wake again to your own blood
And empty spaces in the throat.

How to read the first stanza? Justice is known as a ‘poets’ poet’, the first stanza is a self-reflection of an old poet sitting in his garden with a good book on his lap. The shadow of the evening slowly descends on the scene. The peach tree is shouting my name that only I know: nature is becoming identical with the innermost self, I see some kind of gnostic move here. The thing, what else could it be than the harsh reality of mortality? The claw that it puts out and you take thankfully in your lap – death?

The scene with you watching the little boat passing dead fish and dead trees ‘with you in it’ is chilling. You see yourself drifting off on the river of death. In Greek mythology, Lethe is a river in Hades and when you drink from it, you forget everything. In the poem, you did not want to go away and you are damned to repeat, repeat after the gong is struck (death?) Is this a reference to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence of the same? Waking up to your own blood (you can hear your own blood flow, in an environment with very low noise levels) and empty spaces in the throat. In the evening of the mind, awareness is slowly suffocating itself; I don’t see a sign of redemption or reconciliation here, do you?

Reading: The Evening Of The Mind by Donald Justice was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: To You by Kenneth Koch

New York School poet Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was called “the funniest serious poet we have”. His engaged poetry is often funny, but Koch is serious about his craft. He also wrote short satirical plays and worked very successfully with children. I read a love poem, “To You”.

To You

I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut
That will solve a murder case unsolved for years
Because the murderer left it in the snow beside a window
Through which he saw her head, connecting with
Her shoulders by a neck, and laid a red
Roof in her heart. For this we live a thousand years;
For this we love, and we live because we love, we are not
Inside a bottle, thank goodness! I love you as a
Kid searches for a goat; I am crazier than shirttails
In the wind, when you’re near, a wind that blows from
The big blue sea, so shiny so deep and so unlike us;
I think I am bicycling across an Africa of green and white fields
Always, to be near you, even in my heart
When I’m awake, which swims, and also I believe that you
Are trustworthy as the sidewalk which leads me to
The place where I again think of you, a new
Harmony of thoughts! I love you as the sunlight leads the prow
Of a ship which sails
From Hartford to Miami, and I love you
Best at dawn, when even before I am awake the sun
Receives me in the questions which you always pose.
It is remarkable how this lyrical evocation of the beloved You is nowhere leading to kitsch. The metaphors are well chosen. The cold murder case in the beginning (will the walnut ever be found?) is a chilling image. It looks like the murderer slit her throat (“laid a red roof in her heart” after the neck was connecting head and shoulders). But I get the idea of a detective that is not giving up, like the boy searching for his goat. I have searched feverishly for things (gifts, condoms) once when I was youthful and in love, to please my lover. It is called obsession. But love is more than obsession – that we learn after the semicolon;
When she is near, he is crazier than shirttails in the wind, like bicycling through an Africa of green and white fields. Nearness and farness lead to a harmony of thoughts when he learns to trust the path that leads him to her. Trust. There you get the image of the sunlight leading the prow. And there, finally, he is always with her because of her questions, that are always present to him.

Reading: To You by Kenneth Koch was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Herons by Robert Bly

Robert Bly (b. 1926) was the child of Norwegian immigrants to the US. He is considered a nonacademic and very American poet (the plains of Minnesota…) He is also an important translator of Norwegian and Spanish poetry. One of his projects was writing a poem every morning and these Morning poems are considered to be among the best of his work. I read a short poem called ‘Herons’:


After trailing their bony legs the herons dance
in their crystal house far up near the clouds.
In need you in sand, touching your hand I weep.
In another world I am clear and transparant.

I like such short poems that say a lot in just a few lines. The herons’ world appears transparant, the birds have no secrets. What does “I need you in sand” mean? You should lie next to me in the sand while we are watching the birds, or you should turn into sand? And why do I weep, because I am not transparant enough? Do I want to dance with you like the herons, in a crystal world where we don’t have secrets for each other?


Reading: Herons by Robert Bly was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Feast by Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell (1927-2004) was an engaged, versitale and prolific American poet who won many awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award. I read a classing sounding poem, called the Feast:

The Feast

Juniper and cedar in the sand.
The lake beyond, here deer-meat smoking
On a driftwood fire. And we two
Reaching each other by the wash of blue
On the warm sand together lying
As careless as water on the land.

The feast is sweet. Birds wheel round
The remnants of the food. Let us be dumb
This afternoon, not a gull’s loud Speech
Wakes these bodies from the drowsing beach;
But wake when waves hush and we have become
As two cliffs that are laboured to sand.

The water stills. In the west the gold bars
Melt. We catch our breath to see the sunset
Renew the day on the reflecting lake.
And we who gave the sand a form now take
Its substance; and, between the day and night,
Awaken in the last light like evening stars.

As the light is denied a creature speaks.
I think it is the stones that wear each other
To cold sand who put a voice in our silence,
Or else under the cliff a surf begins.
It tells of another evening, and another,
Beside lapping waters and the small lapped rocks.

The sand grows colder, the ancient body warms.
If love had not smiled we would never grieve.
But on every landscape this turning crown
Flashes and fades. We will feast on love again
In the flaming light, and rise again and leave
Our two shapes dying in each other’s arms.

Over-the-top romanticism in the closing line? Observes Robert Langbaum: “like the romantic poets to whose tradition he belongs, Kinnell tries to pull an immortality out of our mortality.”

It begins with a nice peaceful scene at a lake, you can smell the deer-meat smoking. We are gonna play dumb, we become sand shapes, gained shape, lost substance. The water will come and destroy us but for the moment we enjoy.

Next: sunset. The gold bars melting in the West refers to the Gold Rush and the vacuity of men’s ambitions. The reflecting lake is a still, a moment that exists as a substance we have taken in the crepuscular intermezzo. When night falls, time flows again. The rubbing stones, the lapping water erodes the substance, but it gives us a voice at the same time. There is a transfer of substance from the sand to the ‘ancient body’, the substance that we have experienced during a passing moment, must exist somewhere. Our grievance is the flipside of a smiling love, somewhere, sometime, “But on every landscape this turning crown / Flashes and fades.” Somehow, the poet imagines how we will feast on love again lit by these ephemeral flashes. We will have become the substance that we glimpsed earlier, and can safely leave behind form. We have been forged to free form stones that accummulate their substance from our fickle experience. We leave to poet’s heaven, a dubdivision of Plato’s heaven that stubbornly demands the idea is substance, not form.


Reading: The Feast by Galway Kinnell was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: A Blessing by James Arlington Wright

James Wright (1927-1980) won a Pulitzer Prize for his collected poetry in 1972 (fun fact: his son Franz Wright also won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, which makes them unique). He was considered a technical innovator, well known for his depictions of the post-industrial American mid-West. The following poem is frequently anthologized:

A Blessing
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Such a tender encounter.  Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass! Hello Whitman. The ponies are unique in their loneliness and their kindness is dark. The two loving ponies mimic the poet and his friend, of course. Two guys meeting two gals, not in a hazy bar with the prospect of mating, but in a field in the vast American mid-West, with the prospect of a little bit less loneliness.

I touch her long ear like I would touch a girl’s wrist, tender and vulnerable spot. Then comes the realization of the blossoming. Why? Is the body holding me back? Without it, I would be reduced (broken) into mere blossom, prospect of fruit but not fruit itself? The body is essential because it makes us more than a mere promise, a blossom to each other. It is a powerful correction of two millennia of body-shaming that is Christian culture. Thus goes my vitalist reading, but perhaps you like another interpretation better?

Reading: A Blessing by James Arlington Wright was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Peaches by Peter Davison

Today I read a playful and fruity poem by American poet Peter Davison (1928-2004), who I understood was a quiet but powerful figure in American poetry who deeply believed in his craft. Here is “peaches”:


A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, bleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunches leeches, wrenched teachers.

What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, smooth velvet
richness, splashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.

Deliciously playful. Davison once said that “poetry for me is not work but pleasure, not a career but a second life—a play within a play.” The alliterations and assonations are intentionally overwhelming; everything in languages comes together to strike a spark: Cute hugs, cracked walls, dead trees, knickerbockers ‘hauled over haunches’, wrenched (wretched?) teachers…

We get the point. Lunging into a luncheon, reeking of a leeky dungeon, keeling toward the munging mongrels etc.” But if play is everything, it is also more than play. Davison’s message about the power of language (he would agree English has keine Sonderstellung in this regard) is stealing the warmth (stealing the fire: Prometheus) beneath the surface and use the loot to keep us warm in less fuzzy circumstances.

Professional commentators would undoubtedly call this poem ‘deceptively simple’ proclaiming that there is much to enjoy under its surface that can only be seen after long years of study. I don’t believe that. It’s just a fine poem and its meaning is right there for all to see. You can’t get any closer, so just enjoy the fruitiness as long as it lasts.


Reading: Peaches by Peter Davison was originally published on Meandering home