Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Black Brook (Sargent), Sonnet #278

No one knows where the brook begins.
The mountain is granite and gneiss,
Agate and quartz, covered in moss.
What does she think about? What sins
Or fears? The brook and melting ice?
Perhaps she sees there constant loss.
The drier stones are not as black,
Though her shadowed silk is darker.
No taint of evil could mark her,
At least before she must go back.
She listens to the black brook's song
Until it's all that she can think,
Until there is no right or wrong.
She tosses stones that cannot sink.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Great Horned Owl (Audubon), Sonnet #277

You were envious when two friends and I
Surprised one in woods just a mile from home.
He lit on a branch; his tufts against sky
At dusk were proof and reason for this poem.
As stirring as it was to see the bird
In the wild, my only thought was of you,
That you weren't there with me to see it too.
Well, my love, not the first time that the word
Has to substitute for experience.
You've been captured by the magnificence
Of great fierce eyes and the raptor's plight.
And when they're injured, rescued and healed
(I've shared your joy returning them to flight!)
By your caring, your lovely heart's revealed.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Clouds in Late Fall, Sonnet #276

I have never seen anything in clouds
But a mirror of my unruly mind.
Up there, my interior is being signed
By the gestures of blind and deaf-mute crowds.
There is nothing I do not recognize,
Yet can't name, or vaguely realize,
Because the mind is only a disguise.
I'm not a thought or feeling. I am eyes.
So why did I choose these raked clouds, the skies
Beyond visible, irises blind and blue?
Where I stood the too-close cars rushed past.
The camera trembled, a cold wind blew.
I couldn't find what I'd stopped for -- the view
Had changed -- so I took what was left and last.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hunters in the Snow (Bruegel), Sonnet #275

I waited in the car for my mother,
And said the words crystal spark moonbeam.
The deep snow, banked to the boughs of the pines
By the church, wasn't mine, but another's.
I could only take with me what might seem
Mine, the words I would one day write, these lines.
The night sky shined and the snow ignited,
A new snow, untouched by shovel or tracks.
Was I meant to wonder, be delighted?
Was such beauty a deliberate act?
I was four -- the image never left me,
And not once since has snow-light seemed the same.
The hunters return, leather sacks empty.
Tonight, in high-banked fires, they'll taste game.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Oak in Snow Shower, Sonnet #274

The oak won't grow straight or narrow.
Its parsing of three dimensions
Is like an exploded arrow
Or skeins of galaxial suns.
Time is the drifting down of snow.
Some men cut down a dead willow.
For the first time I can now see
The oak out of my front window.
It beckons to the breath in me.
I once compared bare trees to screams.
A stupid metaphor. "Spacetime,"
Too, renames what is with what seems.
Look closely. The oak's branches rhyme
With all we are, as we sublime.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker in Flight (David Mintz, photographer), Sonnet #273

They say his lost cousin, ivory-billed,
Once chopped down a sycamore and when locked
In a cabin with a bobcat, he killed
The beast with a stab, flinging splinters, knocked
A hole in the door and flew. Man, he mocked.
I don't believe his laughter is extinct.
The pileated's eternal drumming
Is always distant, like tiny thunder.
He's flown right over me. I flinched. I blinked.
His loping flight, black and white wings strumming
The forest light, is the end of wonder.
Here he's caught, head turned around and under,
Flying, crest upside down -- impossible.
Yet, a thing of feathers, flesh, blood, and bill.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Couple Walking in the Forest (Van Gogh), Sonnet #272

For Ruth

We call them our "woods walks," as though the trees
Walk with us; one follows, one leads -- each sees
Us, seldom hand in hand because the light,
Leaf-filtered, tinted, already binds us,
And should we ever become lost, finds us.
We're tall oaks branching each other's delight.
You say you always find here perfect calm.
I feel it too, my love, I feel through you.
In a leaf, I see tracings of your palm,
Read our future, not real, perhaps, but true.
Sometimes you walk ahead and look for birds,
The screech owl (unicorn!) in its knothole,
Never yet seen, though you search every bole,
Your face a lovely sonnet without words.

Posted on our 38th wedding anniversary.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Orchestra of the Opera (Degas), Sonnet #271

Half a life spent practicing the cello,
He's performed for less than a year before
An audience, may yet earn his fellow
Players' respect -- never the conductor's.
The little dancer with the pretty knees
Ignores him when curtain calls are over,
But later will do all she can to please.
(Many in the pit have been her lovers.)
That's him, looking up from his music stand,
Giving you, in the audience, the eye.
"Enjoy," it seems to say, "as if you can.
For me, this music is to live or die,
Sounds that cannot speak, yet signify,
And nothing you will ever understand."

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Galaxy PGC 6240 (Hubble Telescope), Sonnet #270

One doesn't believe in the galaxies
Because they cannot speak. They ran away
And left us with nothing but dimming seas
Of light (not much of that), the random ray
Of heat, glow of illuminated gas,
And the supernova's vestigial mass.
Cataclysm: stars collide in silence
To the humiliation of science.
Lying awake, I go there every night --
A Lagrange point between planet and sun,
Steadfast along their centrifugal bight,
Worlds parsecs away, not unlike this one.
Things move in space but what does space move in?
What probe scratches the universe's skin?

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Banquet (Magritte), Sonnet #269

The sunset is a fickle idee fixe.
A prayer who cannot focus his mind
On one sentence from last Sunday's sermon,
A scientist who forces what he seeks,
A drunken hunter nodding in his blind,
All, intent on ideas — wavering sun.
But the sun never abandons a thought.
We might see it struggle and dim, caught
In leafed trees, or muddled by fog or haze,
Or gone below horizons where it dies
In the night ashes of extinguished days,
Until it's resurrected as sunrise.
We're all like suns to the sun, its to see
And to burn like an idea — to be.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Storm (Munch), Sonnet #268

An imp stamping in the attic,
The storm drives us and the neighbors
Into the street -- young widows, whores,
Lions -- hair spiked in the static.
The mansion is a locked fortress,
Lighthouse windows, chimneys cannon,
Twin sirens keening off and on.
The wind whips hard to undress us
As we trip on the paving stones
No one in the city owns.
When the trees swipe at the windows,
Rebuffed, torn black branches falling
Upwards, we hear babies bawling
As they fly by -- duck their wee blows.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Autumn Landscape at Dusk (Van Gogh), Sonnet #267

The trilling of the screech owl and the wind
In the leaves call to each other in words
Only the words themselves will comprehend.
I walk and answer with an empty mind,
Which slowly fills with the blinking of birds
And muted colors breezes twist and bend.
It's taken the sun's near infinite power
To tinge the air with diminishing light,
Like a mind telescoped to mere eyesight
Or eternity lasting just one hour.
I have found the owl in his empty knot --
Feathers indistinguishable from bark.
For a second nothing will thrive or rot
As the owl closes one eye to the dark.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Animals Extreme (Alice Guerin and Julia Guerin), Sonnet #266

Animals extreme are everywhere:
A laughing camel, sober wildebeest,
And four horses of the Apocaleast,
Dancing with a tang of Devil-may-care.
In my back yard the chipmunks chuck, chuck, chuck,
A sound like the jake braking of a truck.
The hummingbirds have taken to swilling
Berry wine. Our cats yowl like Bob Dylan.
The horses cavort until they are one,
A heady beast just dying to have fun.
The wildebeest needs to cheer up a bit.
It's not the end of the world, friend, not yet!
And you, my humpy friend, laugh all you want,
As you'd want me to, like Emmanuel Kant.

Note: Horses by Alice Bea Guerin and Laughing Camel
by Julia Rose Guerin. Click on the image to see a larger

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Vimalakirti, (Painter Unknown), Sonnet #265

Even a Buddha would think that the dark is light
And all is nothing and nothing is
is bullshit.
Thunderous silence is any mind's steady state.
On every eyelash thrives a ravenous mite,
Vimalakirti would have said, had he the wit.
We cannot eat what those who came before us ate.
There's one answer to each question, which is silence.
What is red? Why is Cassiopeia that way?
What is the difference between past and future tense?
What did you say? What do you say? What will you say?
On a clear day, the horizon line on the lake
Is the turned-away cheek of a sleeping Baku,
Devourer of nightmares. He is me and you.
Hold your tongue, close your eyes, and stay awake.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Man Of Confusion (Klee), Sonnet #264

There's a never in every idea.
The cleft globe glows like a paper lantern
With illuminations we can't unlearn.
Some lightnings will stop at the cornea,
Disappear when we unthinkingly blink.
Oh, that man of confusion! He can think!
Crunch his pumpkin seeds like a chickadee
And drive his beak into the locust tree,
Taking his rightful place among the thorns.
He thinks sadness is wise but never mourns
A death in case it might have been his own.
He cuts off his hand to preserve the bone.
There is an idea in every never,
He thinks. I am more than never clever.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bald Eagle (Audubon), Sonnet #263

They glide more than most birds, wings straight
As a sea plane's, never drunkenly tipping
Like the turkey vulture or flapping desperately
Like the crow. So rarely seen, they're like fate
Surprising you with its ineluctable black wing,
Or a revelation revealed parenthetically,
Two down strokes that lift you on the air
Into the unknowable, naturally aware.
Fishing, they've been known to grasp prey
To big too lift, and, too hungry to let go,
They drown in thrashed-up, freezing spray,
Their head and tail feathers ice and snow.
I have seen his eye up close, though caged.
He looked at me illimitably enraged.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Last Hike (Shitao), Sonnet # 262

If there is anything, there's no last hike.
Standing above the clouds with my old friend,
We contemplate the imminent end
Of sunlight and the scolding of the shrike,
Guarding his bugs impaled in the bramble.
The mists roil, mass, thin, darken, briefly part,
Revealing mist. Up and back, we amble
Along the precipice. It's time to start
Back, though it's harder to relinquish time
Stepping down than to find it as you climb.
So, we find we have been frozen, like rock,
Our marbled eyes fixed on the blinding glare
Of saturated and sun-glazed air --
In there, the dripping of a water clock.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Irina Beatrix (photo by Michael Antman), Sonnet #261

Close your eyes and dream, dear Beatrix, dream.
The sundial at your wrist moves with the sun
And the stranger you meet each day, unseen
In the shadows, is yours, the only one:
He carries an ageless, cumbersome book,
In which he draws and draws your perfect face.
A face you've never recognized, he took
From you, idolizing the female race.
The scarlet dove drops a poppy into your lap --
You slip deeply into your alter consciousness.
A beautiful young woman closes her eyes too,
Centuries from now, and wakens you from your nap.
The death of your child is no longer meaningless.
Yes, you'll pass too -- into a woman who is you.

Note: The painting is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker (Alice Guerin), Sonnet #260

Complacencies of the dead tree,
Every inch of bark hiding ants.
In bare patches a filigree
Of rectangular holes. He rants
And drums, but always at a distance --
The hardest god damn bird to see.
I followed him once by a stream.
I could not get close until I
Stepped into the water, thigh high.
To him I ceased to seem to seem.
Above, he ripped a branch apart,
Hungry savagery, like art
From a chisel, mallet, and drill.
For hours, I watched him kill, eat, kill.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

composition-z-viii (László Moholy-Nagy), Sonnet #259

The colors muted, sere, the shapes impinge
On form. Combinations evaporate
Dimension and perspectives derange
The eye. We can't exist in such a state.
I wish I had a ball that bounced higher
Than the point whence my fingers let it drop,
That not even gravity would dare stop.
We know the universe is a liar.
(Science is like the blind man who can take
Out his eye and polish it with a cloth.
He lays it down and someone puts a fake
In its place -- the eye of a cabbage moth.)
Nature abhors perfect circles or lines,
Leaving us to pervert its perfect signs.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Eagle (Kishi Ganku), Sonnet #258

The feathers only frame the human eye,
A master's eye, an enlightened being
Who sees the flea struggling in the sand,
Who has forgotten to forget the I,
Who sees the present in all that's fleeting,
Who wields a heavy and powerless wand.
I suspect enlightenment, when men "see,"
Is nothing much, a mere epiphany,
A moment of insight, most certainly,
But not quite a glimpse of eternity.
A piercing human eye, an eagle's soul?
The teachings of Jesus, Buddha, et al,
All come down to this. You're free. It's your call.
Do good, love all men, don't be an asshole.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Two Water Sonnets, Nos. 256 and 257

Seascape (Sargent), Sonnet #257

The former troop transport sails west,
Back to the Philippine Islands,
Now with a family of nine.
I clutch at the rail as each crest
Breaks and falls. I struggle to stand,
Looking at the horizon line.
I am six. The sea a billion.
Both of us younger than the sun.
Flying fish and porpoises leap,
As if to lead us past the deep.
The Deep, from which the waves, dark, wild,
And cold, grasping, thrust up, and flail
Like the hands of a drowning child --
And through them ships serenely sail.

The Cascade of Mingxianquan at Mt. Hutouyan (Shitao), Sonnet #256

Like arrows shattering when they strike stone,
The rivulets off Mt Hutouvan mist.
Shredded by the air, they cease to exist,
Voicing their fall in a moaned monotone.
Each trace has drifted over time, leaving
Long scars (now covered by lichen and moss),
The whole like portions of the human brain.
Now beyond the stone, the waters, weaving
In an updraft, are perpetual loss
Restored above by perpetual rain.
We stand enshrouded in moist air, blinking
And cold by a pool beneath the cascade,
Watching each other as we slowly fade,
Ideas worn thin by too much thinking.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Moebius Strip With Ants (Escher), Sonnet #255

Now is now, but then isn't then.
It was then, then it looms again,
Then. A conundrum, very Zen.
Ants follow only the given
Road, arriving where they begin,
Unaware of the moment when
What seemed a simple and open
Path becomes blind beyond reason.
The page is the time of all men,
Where the word released by the pen
Can grace the past with an amen,
Or trace loops of evil omen.
It's the same word, this very "then!" --
Old oxen and a lighting wren.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Wildfire Sunset, Sonnet #254

In Canada, wildfires have burned
For weeks, staining the sun with ash.
The drear boatman Charon has earned,
Demanding the obulus, cash
Payment for transport of the dead.
What can I buy with suns so red,
Molten gold poured into a mold
Of sky, minted without a date,
Because sun and I are too old
To have value at a fair rate?
The fires to the north are a hell
Of sorts, but I will not go there.
I've pocketed the sun, our share
Of the day, which none ever sell.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Wave, Sonnet #253

I dove and dove into the next crest;
Then, dizzy, with my spine wrenched, I floated,
Face down, standing when sand brushed my chest.
Each wave yearns, its will pure and devoted
To reaching the afterlife of the shore.
As it thins to wash, there is nothing more.
I've thrashed and pummeled the waves, throwing
Myself, breast and head first, for an hour,
Unthinking with laughter, gulps of knowing,
Loosing myself into the wave's power.
I know, not every one dies on the beach.
Those farthest out tip high and flatten out.
I swim well, but they're beyond my reach.
New waves will rise and peak beyond doubt.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Omta (Julia Guerin), Sonnet #252

"The answer," says the spirit mask,
"Is in the gaps between my teeth,
In the black hole of air I breathe,
Beat back with my wings. Do not ask.
I once saved the world with my eyes,
Unblinking for a thousand years,
So not one face could disappear.
I said, 'While I see, no one dies.'
One day the sunshine grew fainter
And I could not see moon or men.
I blinked and prayers filled my beak.
Oh, you, you spirit mask painter,
You must make the world new again.
All my powers grow vain and weak."

My daughter Julia invented the word Omta
to name these masks, a combination
of the Buddhist mantra Om, and Ta, which
is British slang for "thanks."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Multi-Dimensional Snake (Alice Guerin), Sonnet #251

The snake ends in a thinning tail
Of muscle, tiny bone, and scale,
A diminution of its head.
Like the forking of its tongue,
Its tails distend to seek, to flick
The next-dimensional-instead.
Can it hear the hissing songs sung,
Like fire from two extra wicks?
He tolerates the division
Until the fangs of other snakes,
Coiling beyond his vision,
Bite him once, again. He awakes,
Lunges, bites his own tail, angry,
Only to find not one, but three.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Crossing (Michael Antman), Sonnet #250

The Chicago River drawbridge is up.
A moment of danger, repeated time
Overruled by STOP letters in their cups,
And a redundant Do Not Enter sign.
We wait because waiting is why we wait,
Nothing else in the world to do for long.
The fitful Spring air whistles through the grates
On the bridge, ageless sotto voce songs,
A sound of life beyond decay, so sweet.
The Windy City cannot hold its tongue.
The drawbridge collapses into a street,
And the crossings begin, of wheels and feet.
The boats below sail out toward Michigan,
Now crossing to then, again and again.

Michael Antman has been the editor of this

sonnet sequence since its inception almost
5 years ago. He's read and advised me on
every single poem.

This is his first image to appear in the sequence, 
and I've made it the 250th sonnet in gratitude
for his patience and wisdom: il miglior fabbro.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Moon Jelly, Sonnet #249

The moons of Earth and Jupiter
Move in space pierced by meteor,
Comet, radiation, asteroid.
All dead things exist in a void
Full of other dead things that fly
Day by day at infinity.
One cannot love the moon jelly.
They're as empty as the word "why."
Instead, we fill them with ideas,
Those bits of us we understand,
That drift along in conscious seas,
Never once in sight of land.
They vanish and then reappear,
Vestiges of another sphere.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Forest Witches (Klee), Sonnet #248

Walking in off the trout stream in total darkness,
I feel them crowding in, dodging my flashlight beam.
That I returned all I caught to the water seems
Propitiatory, cools the blood of the succubus.
I remember Wendy, the neighborhood biter
(Until after biting me her mother bit her).
My first remembered dream, she and her chimpanzees
Trapped me beneath our house, and force-fed me cheeses.
Then the little witch in pointy hat and black cape
Ran screaming up a tree chased by her largest ape.
The flashlight fails and I see nothing, moon or stars.
Even the water is between me and my car.
One of them whispers, "The river is deadly deep.
Don't be a fool. We'll stay right here. Lie down and sleep."

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Black Tree, Sonnet #247

I saw the black tree from a gravel road.
I could not help stopping to stare.
I saw clearly, believed it was not there.
It hid, a mystery, all code.
Were its branches burned, kindled by lightning,
Or blighted by some insect borer,
Choked of light by foliage tightening,
Or stripped bare by some unknown horror?
I opened the window hoping to hear
Loud birdsong, joyous, unconcerned.
The silence fumed like gases slowly burned.
How could a dead tree evoke fear?
I took this photo, quickly drove away.
I will climb down from it someday.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sundial (Escher), Sonnet #246

The motionless gnomon slowly persists,
Pointing the hour in pinching the sun's rays,
While hands of a clock clench their tiny fists,
And sheets of squared paper reckon the days.
A clock can't tick in space, though comets pass,
Light doesn't exist until it falls upon
A planet, your eyes, or a cloud of gas.
Thus, a love is engendered by the sun.
Ruth, our days number some 15,000,
And more than 400,000 the hours.
Let's not waste a moment counting the sand.
What's left us is unknowable, but ours.
I will stand still, watch you encircle me --
No shadows, just the light of your beauty.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Roller, Two Peregrine Falcons and a Long-Eared Owl with her Young (Francis Barlow), Sonnet #245

The peregrines' talons have eased up on their branch.
They're freely balanced, committed, ready to launch.
The plump roller, caught in its amatory dive,
Could be dragged to earth, ripped up while still half alive.
One eyes a clutch of three barred owlets; yes, kindred,
And guarded by their mother, but dozing, well-fed.
An owl must eat a mouse every day without fail
(As I must). The eagle wolfs fish, coughs up the scales.
A mouse pees, as it goes, to leave a trail back home.
A kestrel reads the yellow line like a poem,
Knowing at the beginning or end he will find
The answer to the deepest question of his kind.
The peregrine abandons the owlets to rise
And at 200 miles an hour crashes what flies.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Bodhidharma (Hakuin), Sonnet #244

For Lucien Stryk

His eyes tell us he grasps nothing he sees.
Nothing like shock, wonder, or puzzlement
(His purpose, to see only by degrees),
His response is a dog's to a new scent.
The more he's enlightened, the more dour,
Saddened by the presumption of a flower,
Disillusioned by the barred owl's power --
Endless patience where the field mice cower.
As he stared into a cave for nine years,
Did he presume to think he saw it all,
What is, what isn't, on a granite wall,
That makes a mockery of monks and seers?
Here he's a presence more paper than ink,
All marrow, nothing more, no sense, no think.

Lucien Stryk was one of my writing teachers
at Northern Illinois University. A fine teacher
and poet, he was very influential in
bringing Zen poetry to the United States 
through his translations and interviews. He
was a good friend and mentor.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Inner Courtyard, Strandgade 30 (Vilhelm Hammershoi), Sonnet #243

I assume these windows look on others,
But not the one I'm looking through at them.
The pupil, an irradiated gem,
Reflects upon each pane and its brothers.
A hundred years old, once a glazier's pride,
The lights have been etched by wind, dust, and rain,
By the hard scrubbing at faint time's stain,
And the gaze of hundreds who've long since died.
One window, open, catches the late sun.
As if in lonely rebellion, it flares,
Illuminating a room: no one's there.
Nothing moves. There is nothing to be done.
I close the window with a single thought.
What we see through is never what we've sought.

Monday, May 4, 2015

St. Michael Weighing Souls (Kartner Meister), Sonnet #242

No soul weighs more than the flesh it impounds.
It grows with time, then begins to vanish,
Looks less like a soldier than how one sounds,
Marching off. God of beginnings, Ganesh,
Blasts his trumpet at the birth of the child,
As Michael weighs its soul for the first time.
The devil scoffs, his self-righteousness riled,
Skulks nearby, shields his eyes from the sublime.
The child, perfectly weightless, is handed
To Buddha, and with one hand slap, branded.
Eighty years on, he again stands naked
In the balance, whispers a list of seers,
Of those who loved his soul for its own sake,
Then, like devils long ago, disappears.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

With The Eagle (Klee), Sonnet #241

He can be only the smallest part of our lives.
Over the years I've watched him not even a day.
In spring, circling a pond near leafless woods, he dives
And, skimming the water, dips his talons -- his prey,
A small bass. He lands on a dead tree and devours
All in seconds. Motionless, he'll rest there for hours.
When the trees leaf out he is much harder to see.
A nest, big as a pram, disappears, and his mate,
Whom he uxoriously trades nesting duty,
Will fly off to hunt for herself what he just ate.
The eagle sees me more clearly than I see him.
He doesn't care for me, so I remain a dim
Apparition he never completely ignores,
From caution, a mystery he never explores.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

I Have, I Had (Matta), Sonnet #240

When they gut old buildings, first they divide
Them into mountains of aluminum
And copper, structural steel and gypsum --
Then the ponderous wrecking ball collides.

One birthday, I received a lead army,
Painted soldiers, heavy, but pliable.
I broke the head off of one and, to my
Surprise, they all broke. Who was liable?

We wasters of yesterdays! Of sorrows
Our dying memory dimly borrows!
The meteorite I held in my hand,
The man who pointed a gun at my head,
As of today have been thoroughly banned
From being, soon being nothing I've said.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Two Goats (Gustave Dore), Sonnet #239

In Memory of Jim McNiece

A cataract has cloven the mountain
For centuries -- unnumbered leaves and stones,
Ripped tree limbs, clots of mud, and broken bones,
Fall for miles in the deafening fountain.
A sycamore tree topples in a burst
Of lightning, and forms a treacherous bridge
From a mossy patch to a granite ridge.
Two old goats cross (neither arriving first)
And butt heads at the middle of the tree,
Gently, a nudge, a token of greeting,
Of grudging respect, then a wild bleating
Of hatred and threat. There'll be no treaty.
Only one backs up for a running start.
The other charges, blasts his hornlike heart.

Jim McNiece was my writing teacher and dear
friend at Northern Illinois University. He was
a merciless editor, expunging the lazy, prolix,
or innaccurate word or phrase. I thought of him
as I rewrote this poem many times. We also
butted heads more than once.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spring (Jean-François Millet), Sonnet #238

The winters harden these years, and the snow,
Feet of it even in March, melting slow
In tepid, foggy air, washes our dregs
Into the broken river. The aging
Magnolia in the yard, stung by frost,
Still blossoms, only a few petals lost.
Now begins the long-deferred uncaging
Of sun and sex and bud and leaf and eggs.
My Ruthie and I walk the park most days
And notice, after thirty years, it says
What it always has, that it's merely ours
To wander and watch and never to touch.
Inside a log a young kit fox cowers;
Above, the barred owl's talons shift and clutch.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Floor Scrapers (Gustave Caillebotte), Sonnet #237

The worker who can concentrate,
Lose himself in the hardest task,
Scrapes up time at double the rate,
Creating what? He doesn't ask.
Muscles are meant for heat and toil,
The eyes for precise measurement,
The voice for whispering contempt,
Listening, for the night bell's toll.
It takes a man to scrape a floor.
(God offers no alternative.)
He will go to bed drunk and sore,
Not knowing what it means to live.
The half-finished floorboards await
The restoration of their fate.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sunset Over The Sea (JMW Turner), Sonnet #236

After a year of cityscape and trees,
The eye yearns for depthless, rimmed horizons.
Without them, consciousness begins to freeze
Its geometric and organic zones
Into old, dry, slowly-fading patterns,
The cages of the obvious present.
Oh, to see, not the Sun, but nine Saturns!
Fling stones to speed Andromeda's ascent!
I am content, every summer, to stand
On the beach and ignore each grain of sand
(I seldom look down); the horizon line
Is where, squinting, my eyelids almost meet,
Drawing in from lake and sky, vast and fleet,
All that can momentarily be mine.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Sargent), Sonnet #235

For Julia Rose and Alice Bea

You watch from the periphery,
Until one begs you, "carry me,"
Or, when you're not needed, you turn
Away, then back, because you yearn
To remember all you now see.
They draw, or paint, or mold with clay
The world as it is on that day,
And little of it will survive --
Their art, not its world, stays alive.
Twenty years later, I still leave,
When I must, turn back one last time
For just a look at them, to grieve
With joy, days running out of rhyme.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kappa (Hokusai), Sonnet #234

My pet Kappa (more indentured servant),
Once returned my bow and polite address,
And the water poured out of the deep dent
In his head, leaving him quite powerless.
I replaced the water, brimming his bowl,
And since then I have commanded his soul.
A notorious eater of children
And cucumbers, and raper of women,
My Yokai river sprite is now the guard
Of a young redbud tree in my back yard.
Oh, he is miserable, lies and weeps,
And offers me coins of gold and twenty
Geishas, if I return him to the deeps.
He dies bowing low to water my tree.

Note: Yokai are a class of supernatural monsters in Japanese folklore. They can be mischievous or malevolent, or both. The Kappa, which resembles a turtle, has a bowl-shaped indentation in its skull, which it keeps filled with water. It is the source of its power. Being very polite, if bowed to, the Kappa will bow in return, spilling the water, leaving it paralyzed. If you refill the bowl, the Kappa will be your life-long servant. The speaker in this sonnet is a Japanese gardener from the 18th century.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Dance To The Music of Time (Nicolas Poussin), Sonnet #233

I once watched a conductor stop the world.
At the end of Mahler's Ninth, vibrations
Still fading from the concert hall, he held
His arms up, motionless, for a minute,
Forcing the audience's attention
On the growing silence, to the now mute
Voice of what had come before, of sorrow,
And obliteration of tomorrow.
It was as if he said, Behold, what's gone
Of suffering and death, all that's beyond
Us now; behold and do not be afraid.
And when he lowered his hands no one said
Bravo, cheered (though some wept), or applauded
For forever. Then the room exploded.

I believe in something we call Time
As if it were my own personal god.
I slow it with meter, speed it with rhyme,
And know when it's even and when it's odd.
Under anesthetic, I've completely
Vanished in a vacuum of duration.
In my dreams it embraces me sweetly,
Dancing me in circles of cessation.
I fight Time sometimes with my memories
And foresee circumstances to stop them.
Time indulges my mental forgeries --
Time's the poet; I am but a theorem.
Time is a beautiful woman, ugly
Only when she's gowned with eternity.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Indefinite Divisibility (Yves Tanguy), Sonnet #232

On planets unnumbered a rock lies among rocks.
Inside each skyscraper are painted staircases,
We have never seen or used; the mind erases
What it can't perceive; a man's death stops all the clocks,
Stairs go down to Hell and all the rocks grow faces.
And that's just the world we live in at this moment.
There are others of unimaginable torment,
Where my undying brain sits in a silver jar
Forced to think forever now and here and afar,
Fed equations to steer ships through the firmament.
Now, each time I blink at the sun I am made new,
Turned into, before I blink again, one of two.
By the time the sun sets I, having become three,
Will generate newer me's indefinitely.

Maybe we cannot know that A will precede B,
Or take comfort knowing B always leads to C.
Though we often do, it's just a human habit,
Says Hume. Tanguy, refusing to see, illustrates
The unlikely and all expectation frustrates.
The white fur around the bowl clock being rabbit,
The articulation of bones, interstices
Of machine parts, all trued, introduce new species.
There's another universe exactly the same,
Where the things in this painting actually exist,
But with one less bowl clock and a different name,
And faintly familiar songs too many to list.
I pick up my old coffee cup and take a sip.
It tastes of peat, ashes, and salt, and burns my lip.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ascending and Descending (Escher), Sonnet #231

I grew up in the old stone house of sleep.
I'd sit on the top step of the entrance
And dream mazes of stair, of room, and floor,
My youth's slumber oblivious and deep.
Growing older, seeking a deeper trance,
I entered the house through the basement door
Where myriad doorless, high ceilinged rooms,
All windowless, lead me onto the roof,
My mind alight like pyrotechnic blooms.
There 25 me's, robotic, aloof,
Marched up and down and up maniac stairs,
Marched pair by pair by pair by pair by pair,
Never, never arriving anywhere,
Unblinking, blind with insomniac stares.