Frank O’Hara, “Nocturne”

Is it April 30 already? My goodness, I’d hoped to post more poems during the month, but time slips away. Here is one more, anyway.

I’ve always struggled a bit with Frank O’Hara; whenever I read through a collection of his, I find myself moving rapidly through the pages, the poems themselves running together (and my eyes glazing over a bit) as if I were flipping through someone else’s bedside dream journal. It has only been relatively recently that I have tried to train myself to read him more deliberately, one poem at a time, to see what lies behind the apparently unstructured work.

For example, flipping through his collected poems the other day, I came across this one. The first quick read brought me to a full stop and demanded several rereads, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. The poem reminds me of my first few decades, that sense of misplaced orientation (“It’s the architect’s fault”) provoking distance from other people – but which was frankly more of an excuse for certain attitudes and behaviors than their cause. You have no telephone, and live so far away.


There’s nothing worse
than feeling bad and not
being able to tell you.
Not because you’d kill me
or it would kill you, or
we don’t love each other.
It’s space. The sky is grey
and clear, with pink and
blue shadows under each cloud.
A tiny airliner drops its
specks over the U N Building.
My eyes, like millions of
glassy squares, merely reflect.
Everything sees through me,
in the daytime I’m too hot
and at night I freeze; I’m
built the wrong way for the
river and a mild gale would
break every fiber in me.
Why don’t I go east and west
instead of north and south?
It’s the architect’s fault.
And in a few years I’ll be
useless, not even an office
building. Because you have
no telephone, and live so
far away; the Pepsi-Cola sign,
the seagulls and the noise.

Frank O’Hara

R. S. Thomas, “The Absence”

Today, instead of opening a book at random, or even flipping through to find a poem that strikes my interest, I turn to one of my favorite poems. R. S. Thomas was apparently quite the character, a grouchy parish priest in a hardscrabble Welsh village; his love for his country and fellow citizens was so fierce that one can see in a lot of his regional poetry why that emotion can sometimes be confused with its opposite.

This is the first poem of his I ever read — or rather, heard, since it was read to me in a seminar a few years back — and it has stayed with me ever since, earmarked inside Thomas’ Collected Poems, 1945-1990 on my bedside table.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas

The other day someone said to me, “I don’t think faith and reason are incompatible, I think they are both equally valid.” As I nodded politely, I thought: Really? Or is this just evidence of the compartmentalization we all do in this modern age, segregating spiritual and scientific into their own spheres?

We say, faith and reason are surely compatible, because look, they reference different things, they are useful in different ways! But this reduces faith to a frame of reference, a utilitarian tool, something that “comes in handy” when you need solace or comfort, or a way to explain away the unexplainable, or an ancient and mysterious ritual to zhush up your boring life, or an excuse to get together with similar people and do “good deeds” for the needy. For all of the actual business of daily living, let’s face it, what we call “faith” doesn’t come into play.

True faith starts when we realize that God is not here for us at certain times or to fulfill certain needs. In fact, God is never going to make himself known at all; he’s never going to act in a way that can’t be explained by some other means.

Seek solace, get silence.

And yet we still recognize that there is an emptiness within us, Pascal’s God-shaped hole, that demands God’s existence, and is quite literally the only thing we can offer him.

William Stafford, “Bess”

I pulled down a copy of William Stafford’s The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems and noticed a dog-eared page in the middle of the book. It’s not like me to turn over a sheet like that, and in this case it looked like I had twisted two pages downward, as if emphatically.

I don’t recall reading this poem, “Bess,” let alone marking it, but based on the subject, I can only assume I must have read it in the throes of my stage 4 diagnosis and treatments. Depending on which day I read the poem, I might have marked it out of recognition, aspiration, irony, or disdain — I don’t remember with which emotion I reacted, but any of them would have been honest.


Ours are the streets where Bess first met her
cancer. She went to work every day past the
secure houses. At her job in the library
she arranged better and better flowers, and when
students asked for books her hand went out
to help. In the last year of her life
she had to keep her friends from knowing
how happy they were. She listened while they
complained about food or work or the weather.
And the great national events danced
their grotesque, fake importance. Always

Pain moved where she moved. She walked
ahead; it came. She hid; it found her.
No one ever served another so truly;
no enemy ever meant so strong a hate.
It was almost as if there was no room
left for her on earth. But she remembered
where joy used to live. She straightened its flowers;
she did not weep when she passed its houses;
and when finally she pulled into a tiny corner
and slipped from pain, her hand opened
again, and the streets opened, and she wished all well.

William Stafford

Jorge Luis Borges, “Everness”

It isn’t necessarily my goal to always cite poems to which I happen to open a book at random, but for the second time in a row, I can’t help myself, after reading the random poem in question. This translation comes from Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems:


One thing does not exist: Oblivion.
God saves the metal and he saves the dross,
And his prophetic memory guards from loss
The moons to come, and those of evenings gone.
Everything is: the shadows in the glass
Which, in between the day’s two twilights, you
Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
And everything is part of that diverse
Crystalline memory, the universe;
Whoever through its endless mazes wanders
Hears door on door click shut behind his stride,
And only from the sunset’s farther side
Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors.

Jorge Luis Borges (Richard Wilbur, trans.)

Lately, deep inside volume one of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, I’ve been thinking a lot about the despair of belief and the relief of doubt. How those who claim that they “doubt” too much to believe in God are taking such an easy and really silly path, as if doubt matters or is even interesting.

To look inside ourselves and see that we, in fact, are not alone — that there is an Other — with full access to our individual consciousnesses and histories, which even we as human beings do not have because of our tendency to both forget and lie to ourselves — is absolutely frightening.

Wish as we might, there is no oblivion; there is no forgetting. Everything is, everything that was continues to be.

There are, however, doors that click shut behind us.

To me that’s the sound of mercy, which is not the same as forgetting. Isn’t it both more valuable and more terrifying to be fully known, to be actually seen — everything we are, everything we’ve done, all the horrible things we’ve thought and imagined and planned, all of which together comprise Us As Ourselves, not loosely-connected diapsalmata, not generic “individuals,” but actual Individuals — and yet still be welcomed with love?

Donald Justice, “On the Night of the Departure by Bus”

It is April, which has been designated (by somebody, somewhere) Poetry Month, and given the importance of such Official Pronouncements, I find myself drawn to thinking, again, about poetry.

Now, my relationship with reading poetry is complicated, in the sense that one might describe a relationship with a great-aunt as “complicated” if one only encounters that particular great-aunt once every year or three, even though one always enjoys those encounters because said great-aunt is so insightful and wickedly funny. But then one also hears murmured stories about her abrasive and alcoholic personality, and how she pushes (literally) everyone away whenever she gets in “one of her moods,” and those are the stories one recalls whenever one thinks that maybe one should try to get together with the proverbial great-aunt before time runs out for all concerned.

I wondered over coffee if it might be a useful experiment, during this Poetry Month, to pull a volume of poetry off the shelf, not every day but maybe a couple times a week, and share it with my Breathlessly Expectant Readers, along with (if any) my own thoughts on the selected poem.

But don’t worry, I don’t think that this will be as dull and useless as it sounds, so no need to turn off the email updates or delete my RSS feed just yet. (There’s more Ellul coming, after all.)

For one thing, I’m not going to try to explain poems, and any thoughts I actually do share, I promise, will be scant. I think that reading poetry is similar to reading Kierkegaard, in that the purpose is not to figure out what the author is saying, but what the work is saying — to me, specifically. And even I recognize the limits of interest anyone else might have in my specific emotional reactions.

This morning, the first volume that grabbed my eye was Donald Justice’s Collected Poems, and that’s because it is always the closest in proximity, the volume with which I am most familiar, since I read through it every couple of years. I discovered Justice in a college class, and since even then I was already old beyond my years, I found myself drawn to his elegiac, but plain-spoken, voice. I mean, I was reading “Men at Forty” and only pretending to roll my eyes when I was barely in my twenties.

Which is a perfect lead-in to the following poem, which I must have read many times but don’t recall, and to which I randomly opened the book this morning.

On the Night of the Departure by Bus

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you
had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I to have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barette,
And I – I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

Donald Justice

Oh, misty-eyed Donald. Setting aside the unfortunate last line (which I think should have been left off, but let’s face it, Donald liked that heavy-handed sort of thing), this poem jarred me this morning, the jar of recognition of a conflicting set of emotions in myself. A sense of loss for youthful dreams and artistic ambitions, and the understanding that, with age, our pathways first narrow and then vanish completely. The poem brings forth my outright grief for those things I wanted to achieve, but didn’t — and yet, also, for me anyway, a profound sense of gratitude.

It’s true that most of us will not achieve all that we dreamed, and yet — and yet — aren’t we lucky to have known that desire? To still know that desire?

Who would not go on living?

I would, until I cannot.

Kierkegaard as Poetry (Part 1)

Yes, It Is Nothing

But what does this
mean, what am I to do,
or what is the effort
that can be said to seek,
to aspire to God’s kingdom?

Shall I see about getting
a position commensurate
with my talents and abilities
in order to be effective in it?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I give all my possessions to the poor?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

Shall I then go out and proclaim this doctrine to the world?

No, you shall first seek God’s kingdom.

But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do?

Yes, quite true,
in a certain sense
it is nothing.

In the deepest sense
you shall make yourself
become nothing
before God,
learn to be silent.

In this silence
is the beginning,
which is to seek first
God’s kingdom.

(From “Look at the Birds, Look at the Lily,” by Kierkegaard, included in Without Authority, translated by Howard & Edna Hong; italics in original.)