zbigniew herbert | a ballad that we do not perish

30 12 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 306 | December 31, 2009


I close this Poetry Dispatch year of 2009 with a poem, most memorable words from the winged pen of that great old, European poet, Zbignew Herbert.

What does “a room grown cold a few books / an empty inkwell white paper—“ have to do with a writer’s words ? a reader’s interests? loss of time? hope in the coming year?


A Happy 2010 to you all. Thank you for your interest and support of this site. Stick around: I have more promises to keep… And merci, merci, Monsieur K. —norbert blei


Those who sailed at dawn
but will never return
left their trace on a wave—

a shell fell to the bottom of the sea
beautiful as lips turned to stone

those who walked on a sandy road
but could not reach the shuttered windows
though they already saw the roofs—

they have found shelter in a bell of air

but those who leave behind only
a room grown cold a few books
an empty inkwell white paper—

in truth they have not completely died
their whisper travels through thickets of wallpaper
their level head still lives in the ceiling

their paradise was made of air
of water lime and earth an angel of wind
will pulverize the body in its hand
they will be
carried over the meadows of this world


[ From The New Yorker, August 10, 1998 / Translated, from the Polish, by John and Bogdana Carpenter]

alice d’alessio | days we are given

22 12 2009

PoetryDispatch No. 305 | December 23, 2009

Alice D’Alessio

Days We Are Given

DAYS WE ARE GIVEN is Alice D’Alessio’s third book of poetry, an “Earth’s Daughters” chapbook contest winner for 2009, and a winner in every way a poet makes sense and beauty of her life through words.

I’m proud to say that Cross+Roads Press published her first major collection in 2004, A BLESSING OF TREES, which won the Council for Wisconsin Writers Posner Prize for poetry. It was an immediate bestseller, admired for the delicacy and depth of Alice’s poems, the sheer beauty of the book’s layout and design.

I’m proud to say as well that Alice is one of those Cross+Roads Press writers who moved beyond ‘first publication’ with Cross+Roads to test the waters elsewhere with new manuscripts—and continued success. A new collection of hers, Conversations with Thoreau, has been contracted for with Parallel Press, UW Madison.

DAYS WE ARE GIVEN continues to explore the poet’s personal history, joy, pain, revelation…the coming to terms with time, relationships…the comfort in those days we are given. Here is a poet who loves the play of words—and plays them well, perfect pitch, the harmony of past and present.

The book is divided into three sections: “Things Left Unsaid,” “Infinite Discords.” and “Days we Are Given” Each a book unto itself. All together…where the harmony comes through. –Norbert Blei


for my mother

You broke my heart, you said.
And then you died

leaving the two raw pieces in my lap,
like weeping pomegranate.

Because I tasted the seeds and knew
the underworld? Because your meadows

couldn’t hold me, and beyond the fence
I found a wilderness more tempting

than you – virtuous as a nun –
could comprehend? Was I to blame?

You loved the idea of my life: dinners for eight,
bright kids, bright flowers, filling your dreams

of domesticity. Was it wrong
to hide frayed edges as they pulled apart?

Only daughter of a lonely mother
I was doomed to disappoint

as every seed you planted escaped
your nurturing to flaunt

its own wild weedy dance.
Look, the marsh marigolds we treasured

have disappeared this spring
gobbled by deer, overrun by reed canary grass
but still the redwing blackbird sings.


All down the long, dark halls they sit and wait
like faded pansies in July. Help me, they say,
the voice a prayer that comes too late:
help me to not grow old or take me away.
My parents are here, where they never meant to be,
hothoused, like all the rest. Reduced from book
to page to paragraph, their memories consigned to me;
their vision gone. How short a time it took

to steal their worth – my mother’s clever hands,
my father’s love of books. He copied and reread
the words of Freud, Carnegie, Franklin, tried to understand
their secrets; wanted poems to rhyme – how else, he said,
can they be poems? Daddy, this is for you.
You gave me the words. Arrangement, I can do.


A narrow street, all in confusion,
the children scrabbling back and forth
on muddy cobblestones,
and you in tweeds, impeccable.
I say, we need to talk.
We always needed to talk
and never did, back then –
our words
boxed in like inventory
along the shelves of gritted teeth.

I drag the chairs, position them just so.
Cheap lawn chairs, they move easily,
scrape the cobblestones
like metal fingers.
Too close, too far away. I keep moving them –
facing each other? Side by side?
An inch or two this way, and that. As if
all the world depends on how we sit.
As if we are Palestinian and Jew
forging impossible treaties,
and not two nice people who never learned to talk,
who let the silence go on widening
to a chasm no words could ever bridge.


When I tell you about my dream,
I think you’ll understand:

we are standing on a pebbly shore –
last summer’s shore – at sunset
and the waves keep rolling toward us
with crests of coppery fire,
and troughs, deep indigo.
In the dream, they lose brightness
as they pile up at our feet
in thick translucent folds –
rise to our ankles, knees,
to our waists. I know we will drown soon.

You watch calmly and say,
that’s how it is. I scream
and try to run, but cant move,
my feet buried in sticky muck
as the dream unravels.

See? I say.

But you don’t see, because you don’t dream.
And you tell me again
in that off-handed way,
you’re crazy, you know.
And anyhow
, you say,
you didn’t drown, did you?


and yet, we make up shopping lists,
schedule physical eighteen months from now,
go on the Net to scout resorts
for winter getaway, look at map of Italy
and say the soft names yet again.

Buy membership at fitness center,
for three years of pedaling, pumping iron;
plant trees for the next century, pausing
from time to time with sudden gasp,
as if a cold chill lapped our ankles.

We sign papers that promise
long term care, mark the calendar
for lunch in trendy pub
where, benched and boothed in hum
and chatter, we study laminated menus,

weigh the merits of gorgonzola pasta
as if our lives hung in the balance
as if the sheer number of decisions,
stacked like sandbags, will hold it at bay –
the silent tsunami gathering force in the rearview mirror.


How we dug in fifteen logs for steps
to carry us up the back hill
to the farmer s fence,
named it Sunset Boulevard;
put a bench there facing west;
six startled cow-eyes looking back
like, What?

How we tried to make a prairie –
burning, lugging eighteen buckets of seed
and flinging in wide arcs till we ached
and dropped exhausted on the deck,
and watched five crows
pick out their favorites. How on our knees
we cheered the ruddy clumps of bluestem,
the first three stalks of Indian Plantain,
Compass Plant. It takes a thousand years
to make a prairie, but we could tell ourselves
this was the start.

How we watch some hundred billion stars
slide left to right each night
while coyotes wail off-key
and bats dip and swoop
in their nightly smorgasbord.

We’ll be old here, perhaps next year,
and maybe the world will fracture –
sluff away under its sorrows –
but you and I have counted these moments,
balanced the tally, and called ourselves rich.

Editor’s Note: DAYS WE ARE GIVEN is available directly from the author, 3418 Valley Creek Circle, Middleton, WI 53562, $8.00 plus $2.00 for shipping and handling. The book is also available from Earth’s Daughters, P.O. Box 61, Central Park Station, Buffalo, New York, 14215. Website Earth’sDaughters.org.

carl rakosi | the country singer

19 12 2009

Carl Rakosi 100 years old, photo by Gloria Graham, taken during the video taping of Add-Verse, 2003

PoetryDispatch No. 304 | December 18, 2009

Carl Rakosi

The Country Singer

There ain’t nothing special about me.
Everybody knows I’m too fat
And my legs are too short.
I’m just a middle-aged cornball
With a loud voice
And a drinking problem.
It’s a funny thing,
When I’m on stage
All I do is act like me.
But I can act me
Like a son of a bitch!

[from Heartland II, Poems of the Midwest, edited by Lucien Stryk, Northern Illinois University Press, 1975]

Carl Rakosi (November 6, 1903 – June 25, 2004) was the last surviving member of the original group of poets who were given the rubric Objectivist. He was still publishing and performing his poetry well into his 90s.

Rakosi was born in Berlin and lived there and in Hungary until 1910, when he moved to the United States to live with his father and stepmother. His father was a jeweler and watchmaker in Chicago and later in Gary, Indiana. The family lived in semi-poverty but contrived to send him to the University of Chicago and then to the University of Wisconsin–Madison. During his time studying at the university level, he started writing poetry. On graduating, he worked for a time as a social worker, then returned to college to study psychology. At this time, he changed his name to Callman Rawley because he felt he stood a better chance of being employed if he had a more American-sounding name. After a spell as a psychologist and teacher, he returned to social work for the rest of his working life.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Rakosi edited the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. His own poetry at this stage was influenced by W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and E. E. Cummings. He also started reading William Carlos Williams and T. S. Eliot. By 1925, he was publishing poems in The Little Review and Nation.

By the late 1920s, Rakosi was in correspondence with Ezra Pound, who prompted Louis Zukofsky to contact him. This led to Rakosi’s inclusion in the Objectivist issue of Poetry and in the Objectivist Anthology. Rakosi himself had reservations about the Objectivist tag, feeling that the poets involved were too different from each other to form a group in any meaningful sense of the word. He did, however, especially admire the work of Charles Reznikoff.

Like a number of his fellow Objectivists, Rakosi abandoned poetry in the 1940s. After his 1941 Selected Poems he dedicated himself to social work and apparently neither read nor wrote any poetry at all. A letter from the English poet Andrew Crozier about his early poetry was the trigger that started Rakosi writing again. His first book in 26 years, Amulet, was published by New Directions in 1967 and his Collected Poems in 1986 by the National Poetry Foundation. These were followed by several more volumes and he gave readings across the United States and Europe.

In early November 2003, Rakosi celebrated his 100th birthday with friends at the San Francisco Public Library. Upon his death Jacket Magazine editor John Tranter observed the following:

Poet Carl Rakosi died on Friday afternoon June 25 at the age of 100, after a series of strokes, in his home in San Francisco. My wife Lyn and I were passing through California in November 2003, and we stopped by to have a coffee with Carl at his home in Sunset. By a lucky coincidence, it happened to be his 100th birthday. He was, as always, kind, thoughtful, bright and alert, and as sharp as a pin. We felt privileged to know him.

bruce dethlefsen | breather

13 12 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 303 | December 13, 2009

Bruce Dethlefsen

Here are four poems from Bruce Dethlefsen’s third, most recent book of poems, BREATHER, Fireweed Press, 2009, $15. He previously published two chapbooks, A DECENT REED, Tamafyhr Mountain Press, and SOMETHING NEAR THE DANCE FLOOR, Marsh River Editions—a particularly fine Wisconsin small press.

Dethlefsen puts his life in the line in all these poems, immediately engaging the reader. No easy task. His life recognizably becomes yours in a breath. What he has working for him is flat-out honesty. Not to mention humor, a sense of place, and a poet-storyteller’s ability to leave you with more than mere words.

I love the poems but hate this book.

Hate the physical make-up of pages, cover and binding that prevent the reader from opening it, let alone comfortably perusing the text. Maybe my copy is the exception, and if so, my apologies. But this is one of those books designed like a mousetrap you’re constantly struggling to keep open, lest the ‘spring-structure’ of the too-tight binding, snap the whole damn book CLOSED in your hands—just as you were getting close to the last line of another particularly good poem. It’s a tiring process. I usually throw these books to the floor, never finish them.

I don’t blame the author. Or even the publisher. Though publishers should be mindful of the quality of work of the printers they hire. If you’re thinking of printing a book in Wisconsin Rapids sometime—be careful. —norbert blei

Read Aloud

as the child reaches
underneath the book
to help the father prop it up
their hands touch
underneath the book
and the story resumes

When Somebody Calls After Ten P.M.

when somebody calls after ten p.m.
and you live in Wisconsin
and you’re snug in your bed

then all’s I can tell you
somebody better be missing
somebody better had a baby
or somebody better be dead

The Way of the Poet Warrior

(for Thomas Lux)

throw the ball back to the pitcher better
——————————–-Bang the Drum Slowly

pay perfect attention to what’s going on
what’s going under
and what’s going on under

question everything that moves
interrogate everything that doesn’t

daydream deliberately
use your x-ray vision
but pay no attention to those little editors
behind the curtain

shower and sleep with pen and paper
don’t let the big one get away

keep your antenna up
but if the voices get too bad
wear a square of aluminum foil
under your watch cap

learn each rule then break each rule
be prepared to read anything
anytime anywhere for nothing

learn humility
what do you think you’re some kind of genius?
there’s always a faster gun in town

when you’re with others
try to act normal
as if all this matters somehow
walk as though you have somewhere to go
when you’re alone float for all I care

connect the strings you see
that flutter in the wind
eat bruised fruit
howl at the moon from time to time

dance with everyone
even before you hear the music come

learn another language

know that although it seems like it
not everything is poetry

understand that one average plumber
is worth five good doctors
or three great poets

in short pay attention
write better
and yes the flying dreams are the best

November Lake

my parents dead my wives unwed alone
I moved into the cottage by the cove
to watch november lake until it froze

the leaves had all but fallen from the trees
no crying of the loon no southern breeze
I’m free to be and do just what I please

there’s no one left to make those second guesses
no one here to hear my sins confessed
and if I sneeze my sneeze remains unblessed

no food no drink no heat my hunger grows
the final gnawing question I suppose is
what noise makes a casket as it closes

[from: BREATHER, Fireweed Press, 2009]

al degenova | the blueing hours

2 12 2009

Poetry Dispatch No.302 | December 2, 2009

Al DeGenova

When I consider some of my original intentions in starting a small press some fifteen years ago, and when I look at the book of Al DeGenova’s poems I published in BACK BEAT (CR+P #15, 2001), along with Charles Rossiter, I couldn’t be more pleased considering all Al has accomplished since then, including his most recent book, THE BLUEING HOURS, Virtual Artists Collective, 2008, (http:// vacpoetry .org).

While the hum of Kerouac and Co. drove much of his word-music in BACK BEAT, there is all that and much more in THE BLUEING HOURS, and its three parts: “The Red Hours, “The Black Hours,” and “The Blueing Hours.”

Maybe ‘blue’ is the working. defining metaphor for all he has to say and sing. Al’s drive is music, Chicago, family, relationships, the poem as ‘memoir’ to some degree…and something bordering between eroticism and love–not a bad ‘red’/‘blue’ place to be, though a hell of a territory to define, call your own.

My idea with CR+Press was to help launch, publish a limited edition, ‘first book’ by writers who could show me something. And not publish a second printing, no matter how well the book may have sold. My preference was to put my efforts in another first book by another new–or older small press writer who had faded into obscurity.

My hope was that the writer would ride the wave of the first book and, when he or she was ready with the next manuscript, find a new, different publisher. Continue to expand, grow make a name/reputation. New horizons. Many publishers. All this was part of the learning process. Al did this—and more. Even found another publisher to reprint the first, best-selling book, BACK BEAT. I could not be prouder of him.

He continues to bring his own kind of music to the writing. Continues to find new pathways to the interior. He is also the publisher/editor of one of the best literary magazines coming out of Chicago, AFTER HOURS.

Here are some poems from THE BLUEING HOURS which capture much of what I see and applaud in the man and his art. —norbert blei

Chicken Shack Blues

We were to play together
a gig, father and son
sax and piano
like some modern-day notion
of vaudeville, or
talent night at the PTA.
I taught him a greasy
fried and dirty blues
like teaching him to tie a half-Windsor
or drink beer
or to live in the wilderness
with what we carried on our backs –
blues in G, that’s what I said
anxious to relive some smoky jam session memory,
as if there were some
in those 12 bars.
We’ll learn Chicken Shack.
He said,
it’s just a blues.
a blues
so nonchalant
as if there were nothing to it.
But at least
the first time he played
“Chicken Shack”
it was with
tenor’s voice
growling low G
a father playing the blues
for his son
opening the door
to free the red rooster
to feed the gray fox.

Living History

Hemingway’s breath still lingers
here on this street, my street,
his street.
Did he ever walk across
my lawn, sit on my porch
on his way to school, the same school
my sons sit in now?
I walk past his boyhood home,
look up to his third-floor bedroom.
The light is on tonight in that center window.
Whose 17-year-old shadow
contemplates the glory of war?
Do those old floorboards still hold
the crescent moons of his fingernails?
If matter and energy can never be destroyed,
then history is a fishbowl –
we share this same water for eternity.
The song Hemingway hears
as he runs to catch a football
is my voice, my son’s piano from our open door
then, if it’s all true
I swim in the same salty Mediterranean
where my grandfathers wash their feet.
I touch the skin of the dead then,
when I write my name in the dust
on my brother’s Manhattan bookshelves
and the dead know me, know I am
here – now – trying to taste
their history like a ripe plum
like sour mash, like
all the lovers who’ve kissed my lover’s lips.
We are the ancient dirt beneath our feet,
are the Nazis, the Popes, the Michigan militia
all the hot dog vendors on Bourbon Street,
we are the Presidents, we are the bombs,
the dead babies, the homeless garbage eaters,
we are history—
the waiter delivers our fathers’ tabs,
and we pay, we pay.


A small move
white key to black
one half-step forward or back
colors major with minor
the smallest distance
between piano keys
transforms gospel to blues
Mozart to Monk.

The twitch of a muscle
sounds a missed note
pinches the corners of a frown
winks an eye
pronounces a wrong word
brushes a finger against a cheek.

To think the end
of a concerto hangs
precariously on the touch
of one little finger as
delicately as an explanation
between wife and husband
of the phone call
that rings dissonance
the caller outside the chord.

Souring Metaphors

Crows line the horizon.
The milk in your breasts sours.
The piano is out of tune.
Your cheeks smell like mascara.
You walk through the valley of fear.
I fix the plumbing.
I carry the groceries.
You are the wind at the curtains.
I read suicide poems.
Your voice calls from a locked steel box.
I read without light.
You eat the leftovers.
You pull the weeds.
I smear gray ink.
You scream at the laundry.
You scream
at the laundry.

[from the BLUEING HOURS, Virtual Artists Collective, 2008, http://vacpoetry.com]

Much more on Albert DeGenova with listening examples can be found here…


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