Category Archives: verse and worse

The Listeners

Low dropped ceilings, buzzing fluorescent tubes,
Dim, orangish light with sporadic
Flashes, damp patches, dusty tables.

On the radio, words mixed with static.
Martinez thinks she might hear a number
That matches a room on the list she’d stuck

To the beige paint on the wall that's nearer
Her desk than where she stacks food in boxes.
She’d better check it out. She picks neither

The hall with endless cartons piled in blocks
Nor the one lined on both sides with locked doors,
But the passage with booths and swivel-chair backs

Receding down one side, and desks and drawers
Dimly visible through the smudged windows 
Of offices on the other. Plump drips

Soak the carpet, and lint collects in wads.
At an intersection, a woman kneels
By a vacuum-cleaner with wet wipes.

Both know neither knows words the other knows.
They stare silently until the radio
Nudges Martinez on with a burst of noise.

Hand on her nightstick, eyes on the long row
Of interior panes and hollow-core doors.
A long walk now, not one you’d want to redo.

You can go in this direction for days,
But are there vending machines stocked with food?
Lights flicker and the radio’s volume drops.

In the sudden quiet, she is afraid.
Something is off. She is watched. Every hair
On her arms rises, taut. What she'd feared ...

She is running, vision jerky, with her
Hands out as if to ward something away.
At the corner, the vacuum-cleaner's there,

But no woman. Martinez thinks she knows why.
She will call it in. "Incident," she says.
"Unresolved. Urgent." Things are awry.

She hears fizzling and some words. Her SOS
May have drawn their attention, or else not--
Martinez can never tell. Her breath subsides.

In place of panic, anger rises next.
Into the radio, she states: "I quit.
I'm out. Confirm." She strikes a cabinet

To make a bang they'll have to hear, quite
Sure the sound resounds on their end, too.
It does. They hear her and make themselves quiet.

Their strange stillness answers her, an undertow
Beneath the buzzing and the steady drip.
They don't want her to hear them. They wait to
Resume until she lets her radio drop.

(Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners” meets “The Backrooms” of urban legend, in terza rima with slant rhymes.) See also: “Arachne,” “the laughter of the gods,” “what it looks like to live,” and “self help: a short story.”

Arachne

A fourth story (see the other three here):

I scuttle up the line on slender legs.
One limb pulls silk smoothly from my belly
While another glues it at the right point.
Repeat, no thoughts needed; the design is
Encoded in my nerves, automated.

But Athena has left me memories,
As punishment. While the other spiders
(Disgusting creatures, close up) just spin and weave,
I spin, weave, regret, repeat, and weave
Regret right into the pattern of my web.

She didn't win, you know. She saw she'd lost
When she caught the looks on people's faces.
Her tapestry was very well woven,
Bright colors, nice detail, professional work.
No one liked it, though, because it said: "I rule."
It was a propaganda poster in wool:
"Athena," by Athena, with peons.

Mine was the opposite. I showed poor girls
Seized by man-gods: how they fought in terror.
I left the gods out, so my art was pure
Sympathy. I was on the side of us.

People had always loved to watch me work.
People, and nymphs, too: they came down from Tmolus
With their perfect bodies and empty heads
To see someone actually making things.

Their praise pleased, but it wasn't quite enough.
They couldn't understand the objects they liked.
They guessed Athena must have instructed me,
Because they had never struggled to learn.

I wanted Athena's attention--and got it
With my boasts, which floated up to the sky.
When an old hag came to refresh my manners,
I half-knew who that woman was. (Not quite.)
My curses and slurs surprised even me.
I think I was asking Athena to fight.

I was half pleased, then, to see the rags drop
Off her and her virginal, marmoreal 
Perfection irradiate my poor room,
Making the mortals and nymphs turn away.
Time to get weaving, then; let's see who's better.

She didn't have to weave well. She is divine.
She could do whatever she wanted with me,
Just like Idmon, my father, once Mother died
(My mother, whose name no one's recorded).

My famous weaving is what saved me from him.
My famous art, not Athena's. When she saw
It was better than hers--more popular, too--
She reasserted her authority.
She ripped my fabric to bits, grabbed my distaff
And started to beat me with it. My ear,
My kidney got a blow, my knees, my crown.

I grabbed some yarn I'd spun, thinking first to throw
It round the goddess' long white neck and pull.
Since hers was shockproof chryselephantine,
My own neck offered a better way out.
I made a noose and dropped it from a rafter.

Athena must have granted me respite
From my beating to prepare my suicide.
As for me, I wished to steal her victory.
My death would be my own doing, not hers.
I would make my story end as I chose.

They say the sight of me choking on my yarn
Stirred some pity deep in Pallas' breast
And she chose to spare me a rightful death,
Graciously granting me more time to weave.
But I say she made my body her art.

Sprinkling belladonna and henbane
On me made my hair fall out; strange words
Elongated my fingers into legs.
My thumbs, arms, and real legs shrank away.
My teeth consolidated into fangs.

Athena was loving her work. She hummed,
Chuckled, paused to admire the results, 
Muttered encouraging words to herself,
Calling herself "Athena" and "Clever girl."

She shrank me by pure will and watched me hurry
Up my own noose to a crack in the roof
Where I again began to spin and weave.
Now my pattern is hers. I watch it emerge.
I see what it is once my limbs have made it
Exactly the same as they've made it before.

This responds pretty closely to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI, 1-145. See also: the laughter of the gods; The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis

Joe Hill: A Musical

This just needs dialogue, lyrics, and original music (presumably folk). It’s based on a bit of history plus plenty of invention.

Act 1, Scene 1: Silver King Mine, Utah (1914)

Striking miners sing of their suffering and despair. They are buoyed to see Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant and union organizer, arrive. He leads them in a chorus of his song, “There is Power in the Union,” which raises their spirits. Hilda Erickson, age 20, a fellow Swede, approaches him and expresses her admiration for his courage.

Act 1, Scene 2: the same

Joe pulls fellow workers Sven Andersson and John G. Morrison aside to discuss what to do when hired guns come to break the strike. Morrison suggests they blow up the only bridge to the mine so that the goons can’t bring their heavy weapons with them. Andersson says he knows where they can steal some dynamite.

Act 1, Scene 3: Hilda’s family home, a humble homestead near Park City.

Joe arrives with flowers and asks Hilda out on a date the next weekend. After he leaves, she sings ambivalently. Maybe Joe would come to love her in time, but he seems to love the movement more–and death more than all.

Act 1: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The local sheriff meets with Morrison, who turns out to be a former police officer and now an undercover deputy. Morrison tells him that the Wobblies are planning acts of terror using dynamite. The sheriff orders Morrison to let them steal the explosives and then arrest them on the spot. Morrison sings of his anger that communist foreigners would try to subvert his community.

Act 2: Scene 1: Hilda’s home

Otto Appelquist, another Swedish immigrant, knocks on Hilda’s door, also bearing flowers. He sings of the life they could have together as his store thrives in the growing American West, the land of dreams. This song turns into a duet, with Hilda confessing the appeal of his vision even as she also admires Joe. She agrees to go on a date with Otto.

Act 2: Scene 2: A warehouse by night

Andersson and Morrison steal dynamite. Once Andersson has it in his hands, Morrison draws a pistol and tells him he’s under arrest. Andersson draws and fires, killing Morrison. Standing over the dead body, Andersson sings of his fear and announces that he will flee town immediately.

Act 2: Scene 3: Outside Hilda’s home, the same night.

Appelquist drops Hilda off at her door and sings of his love for her as he walks away. Joe Hill suddenly appears and demands that Appelquist leave Hilda alone. They argue heatedly. Joe picks up a shovel and brandishes it threateningly. Appelquist draws a pistol and shoots Joe in the chest; Joe staggers away.

Act 2: Scene 4: The same

Appelquist returns to Hilda and confesses in shame what he has done. She sings of her frustration with all violent, possessive men. She hopes that Joe survives and chooses not to turn Otto into the police.

Act 2: Scene 4: The sheriff’s office

The sheriff receives word by telephone that his deputy, John Morrison, has been killed. The phone rings again to let him know that the anarchist Joe Hill has staggered into a doctor’s office with a bullet wound to his lungs. He sings of his rage at Hill and expresses bitter satisfaction that the radical will now die for murder.

Act 3: Scene 1: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary, Salt Lake City

Orrin Hilton, a slick city lawyer, urges Joe to tell the jury who really shot him. Joe says he would never snitch, and besides, he doesn’t want to take the stand in his own trial. He sings that he will serve the revolution best as a martyr. What is one man’s life worth when millions starve with rags on their backs?

Act 3: Scene 2: A field outside of town

Otto admits that he is no hero, but he sings eloquent memories of the old country, Sweden, in summertime. Can’t they ever enjoy wild strawberries again? Meanwhile, Hilda sings a lament for Joe and commits to living a decent life with Otto.

Act 3: Scene 3: The Utah Territorial Penitentiary

Joe reads his last letter to “Big Bill” Haywood (“Don’t mourn–organize”) and sings his final testament: “My will is easy to decide / For there is nothing to divide. …” Men come and take him to be shot. As the commander counts, “Ready, aim …” Hill shouts, “Fire — go on and fire!” A ghostly chorus of workers sings Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” while Hilda and Otto watch, hand-in-hand. 

Hush

Thin stands of bare-limbed maples and pines
Barely hide cinder-block buildings and signs,
But snow, fresh snow, wet snow: snow drapes all. 
Each twig or needle bears as many crystals
As could possibly be piled upon it,
Becoming a slender line under white,
Each just a tiny part of the lacy whole.
Trees are huge versions of their own branches;
Branches, like their own ornamented twigs;
Drifts, composed of delicate, gem-like flakes. 
No shortcuts. No “Paint that whole section white.”
Even in the densest thickets, each branch
Is intricately decorated with snow.
What superfluous generosity,
What quiet power. The road, too, is hushed. 
Cars file through, wheels whispering, as if
Reminded of what they have done, although
The storm does not mean to chide or console.
It is not meant for us; it simply is.

See also: More Temperate; Tangled Beauty; and “Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall” 

When the Lotus Bloomed

Thanks to Cambridge Arts’ Sidewalk Poetry program, this poem is now imprinted in cement at Clarendon Ave. and Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge (Mass.). The text appeared first on my blog. I meant to answer Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own translation from Bengali—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”

By the way, Tagore’s English versions of his own verse are criticized for being sentimental, archaizing, and didactic and less challenging than the originals. For instance, Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Tagore’s English version of the Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1913, is what Mother Teresa once was to Calcutta, the royal family to England, and Kingsley to Gandhi: a tantalising mirage that obstructs the view of what’s behind it.” My response, then, must be even further from Tagore’s Bengali original, which I cannot read. But I think these eight lines convey some of me, and I hope they offer a touch of peace in North Cambridge.