‘Don’t make him go.’ ‘I’m not.’ ‘He’s only just now Come in to play.’ ‘He’d rather be outside, ’ Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside. He’s old enough to want to help.’ ‘Then next year,’ Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’ ‘Let Mary,’ said the father. ‘Mary? Set The table? Let her help with splitting wood!' The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older. Why can’t your daughter?’ ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’ ‘And does she need to?’ ‘Jack did.’ ‘Why not ask her?’ ‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father. ‘They’re old enough.’ Just then the boy walked in Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow Nonetheless guessing at the argument. His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’ He asked. His mother paused. She’d carried in The plates and silverware and had begun To set them. ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’ She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough; I don’t.’ ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy. ‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’ ‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father. The boy Ran out the door but never having seen His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked, Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling And had already fallen, not in gales But in that way November snowfalls shroud The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard, Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening Descending overall but for the dooryard And lighted house behind the boy. The path To where the wood was split went first before The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where The log length wood was piled. The closest bay Stored their discarded toys. Among them were A tricycle, its rims half buried in The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds That just a year ago already would have Skated November’s early snow—the lettering Faded and flaking from their slatted backs. The boy might yet have pulled them out but for A baby gate that sometime during the summer Was forced into the only narrow entry (As if to bar a child’s going in Or toys from coming out again). The snow Curled over the metal lip of roof Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded Into a ghostly exhalation. Drawing His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled— A knee to snow. The middle bay was where His brother stored his car on blocks. The right Front block had sunk into the dirt so that The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy In nightmares. The car still needed work— And every day less likely to be done. The doors, fenders and hood were primed With spray paint (underneath the priming gray The paint’s original red) but here and there The rust was rusting through. But mostly when His brother visited the car he’d take A girl along. The boy would want to follow But every time he’d asked them what they planned His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by What kind of hide & seek there was to play Inside a car, made plans some night to follow And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay For just a little while and sometimes late Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss And laugh as though in seeking they had found A thousand hiding places. Another gust Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans— Their desiccated eyes were motionless And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight Or the boy passing by. The furthest bay Was where his father kept the tractor—lights Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer The boy’s father might leave the tractor out Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb Into the seat as though he could ignite The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs To life again. The metal’s heavy odor Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work Of tractors other than they worked the fields; And where he would have traveled had it rumbled To life meant less to him than understanding What force of architecture moved the steel, What housed explosions turned the giant wheels Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom— Too much to call it hate—but let the field For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay, And have no livestock. Let it go uncut Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’ His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared A meadow? And there are other reasons Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple Over the kitchen table just as if A scythe had lain them down again. The boy hewed Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown. He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards As if they were a final parting breath— The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle And motionless. Any other day He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn, A storehouse of forgotten generations Who owned the property a hundred years And more before the boy’s own family. Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through The slow haphazard regolith of mice And straw to find a broken tool half buried: Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile In crates he made himself—half a dozen He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden With nail holes. The boy had found foundations Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes Looking for the long forgotten button That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards— Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been More than the lumber worth saving then either That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber, The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory), And the machinery still following The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing Into the sediment. And yet the boy Will mend their failing joints, imagines them— Painted and metal polished—renewed Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries From the barn and there stable either ox Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing And more. He followed round the barn’s far corner, The muddy yard where log-length firewood Was piled—the time of year the yard Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields, Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow Of early winter. The boy had often Come out this far and been distracted by The sloping fields, wondering at the world Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds Of incandescent sands and whirlpools Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels; And waters trembling over them like outspread wings. Their contemplation wakened him; he feared The dark that sank his bed into their mystery; The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights, In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore, He’d waken to horizons nothing more Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, A cluttered floor. The path veered left between The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow, Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes Half shut until the gust rose over top The roof again as though the barn itself Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing As fleetingly as it appeared. The boy Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust, Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled, Stepped back again. A little further on The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown— And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry. His sister lightly cupped his shoulder, Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather. She turned him gently to his back. She leaned As if unsure; then being sure, she closed His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she Nor the boy moved. 'Okay,' she finally said. She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand. 'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more. Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021Continue reading
Just as the Cosmos is remarkable In its homogeneity, so life Surprises not in its variety, But similarities—a living world May neither be too close nor orbiting Too distant from its sun, must be rocky, Have water and a molten core’s enveloping Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds Like organisms, each convergently Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate And life. And just as they're alike in their Constituent elements, the life arising Evolves alike—prokaryotic and Eukaryotic over billions of years Divided into plants and animals. The laws of evolution are not altered By time, locale or species. Anywhere There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable Than alien, more that universally Applies not just to life’s emergence but Also to sentience, intelligence And civilization, for in every world, Where though the sun is unfamiliar, Where night is visited by stranger tides And constellations, where though the byways And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields Under alien skies, you still will find The bicycle. There are an infinite number Among as many worlds. The universe Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds Awash in microscopic biomes While others teem with wilderness; but where Intelligence and sentience evolve So does the necessary wheel and means To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket Both different and alike in their design— Blueprints of the physiology And minds inventing them. In any world Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere In any quarter of the universe Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles And balanced on a kickstand. Were it possible To bridge the light years with a bicycle By pedaling or by a sail affixed To catch the winds of other Milky Ways; Or to visit on a summer’s day An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall At nebulae; and were there, anchored To every handlebar, a telescope To navigate the air (and wine and blankets In every basket); then bicycles Would populate the intervening skies, Would coast like comets through the scattered stars And glitter in the light. If on an evening You find a square of earth to unfold Your blanket and to gaze at constellations, You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life And yet see none. In every world you’ll see A thousand thousand bicycles and yet Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes, A billion intermittent years gone by, Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant, Yet never know. Ride your bicycle The little while you can—and wait no more; Though a bicycle won’t ferry you Across the pathless oceans of the Cosmos, This poem has never only been about The bicycle—but our imagination. The Universe is full of bicyclists Who dream of navigating, just like you, The same intractable distances, To view, if for a day, another moon, Another sun—and you. So little Are our allotted days, so impossible— The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe; Let your imagination be the bicycle And what before had been beyond your reach Will be the passage of an afternoon. Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves Among worlds moving darkly and unseen; Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles And for a little while—yours.
Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021Continue reading
An actress’s reading of Die Erlkönigin is always something I’ve wished for. Then, just over a month ago Harriet Whitbread, the head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company, emailed to ask if I’d enjoy her own reading of the poem.
I confess that when I read this poem publicly, I sometimes can’t make it to the end. Goethe’s original poem, Erlkönig, was and is profoundly meaningful to me in a way that I could only translate by writing Die Erlkönigin. Ms. Whitbread shared that she also had trouble reading to the end and that is, in a sense, as much as I ask from the poem.
Please enjoy Whitbread’s beautiful performance.
Harriet Whitbread is Head of Voice & Learning Support at the Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company located at the The Monkey House, 97-101 Seven Sisters Road, London, N7 7QP. You can visit the Fourth Monkey website here.
The devil knows how to tell a lie.
He’ll con the foolish through and through
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.
Nobody hears the poor man’s cry
And anyhow what can you do?—
The devil knows how to tell a lie.
He’ll tell you (if you ask him why):
‘I’d not be here, if it weren’t true,
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.’
And though each day a thousand die
Success is for the chosen few.
The devil knows how to tell a lie.
I bet you think you’d never try
But he knows well you’d like it too—
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.
The world is burning by and by
But what he does is done for you.
The devil knows how to tell a lie
Impeccably dressed in a coat and tie.
June 2 2020
- The following was inspired by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Specifically, read the closing paragraph in my previous post: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I did a few things differently with this poem. I roughed it out first, something I rarely do; then the blank verse revision. I’ve also been reading Shakespeare’s late plays, the romances, especially with a mind to his late style; and in combination with a book by Russ McDonald called Shakespeare’s Late Style. Historically, Shakespeare’s later verse has been considered problematic and was, by later poets like Pope, revised if not excised. Not to me. The syntactic “incoherence” of Shakespeare’s late verse is unmatchably beautiful. So, by writing the following, I wanted to learn from it. I combined the epithets found in Homer with the syntactic addition, divagation, delay, elision and suspension typical of Shakespeare’s late style. I know this isn’t any way to write in the 21st century, but me and my poetry have gone our own way.
Odysseus, wily navigator, you
Who have endured a thousand harborless sorrows,
I too have suffered.
••••••••••••I, being sent to launder
Your mistress’s apparel in the river
Or often, by myself, to bring from orchards
A desired olive, fig or grape, was also
Betrayed by those you’ve slain—made by them
A slave to slaves—my vessel desecrated
My lading mired and diminished, sorted
With weeds and brackish waters—yet for that
••••••••••••Odysseus, ingenious King—
Tell him, your minstrel with the wine stained fingers
Who sings of wayward tides, of witches, Gods
And far-flung isles, that I was also lost
Longing for home who had no home to search for;
And tell your songster in your rage you snared
My sisters by one rope between a pillar
And dome; and that we were together lifted,
Each beside the other, nooses round
Our necks until our feet no longer touched
The earth—the knots tight as a luthier’s string.
Tell your songster, though he sings of you
To tell of the twelve girls who were like
Thrushes that spread their wings to fly at last
But could not. Though struggling, we only breathed
To take another dying breath—our agony
••••••••••••Tell him: ‘Sing of girls, of slaves
To slaves, who twitched a little while but not
For long; whose rags were left behind, bone broken
And creaking in the winds of Ithaca.”
Tell him that we waited to be lain
Among the corpses we ourselves had carried
From the blood-soaked hall.
••••••••••••So long as sings your minstrel,
Odysseus, so long will fly from us
The last syllable of our breath: that far
From Ithaca, cries of murder, bloodshed
And vengeance—where the grass at evening shivers
In sea-spray and the noiseless spider sifts
The wind—was seen a startled thrush that cried out,
Took flight above the drumming waters, even
Above the dissolution of the air,
Into the spreading fingers of the Milky Way.
March 12th 2018 by me, Patrick Gillespie
Midway through December, as I continue to write haiku, I notice I pay more attention to the world, aware of poetic contrasts, interrelationships and vividness. Writing haiku is a kind of mindfulness. Haiku are short and can be written in an instant, though this doesn’t mean they’re simple or trivial. I continue to edit the haiku I’ve written this past week.
But the experience is different than a sonnet. I can spend a week or months on a single poem, turning the same imagery and ideas over until I arrive at something that feels organic and, ideally, spontaneous. But writing haiku allows a poet to inhabit a different world each day—each day newly imagining a new poem. This brings an awareness to everyday doings. The first realization is how frustratingly similar each day can feel. I travel the same roads. I see the same clouds. The trees are bare, the floor leaf-strewn, and the rivers shine through them.
I want my haiku to offer a variety emotions and observations. Even if I write them every day for a yearI want to avoid repetitiveness. That means one has to look beyond the familiar to the unfamiliar which is, after all, what haiku do. They also make the familiar unfamiliar and new. So writing haiku requires not just mindfulness but an aware inquisitiveness. The poet who writes haiku isn’t passive. Basho warned that haiku were only to be had in the journey. He famously wrote:
“The moon and sun are travelers through eternity. Even the years wander on. Whether drifting through life on a boat or climbing toward old age leading a horse, each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
Today I travelled south to Woodstock and I travelled west and north to Randolph. The sky was a beautiful mix of broken clouds and blue sky. The wind was strong today, and moody. My tarps were blown off the woodpiles and tonight the wind is just as rancorous.
I wonder about my own spiritual journey.
I was in love with the world today—its little vanities, nobility and introspection. The sun lit some mountains and not others. The smaller rose above their statelier neighbors when the sun swept across them.
When the sun is this low in winter the undersides of the clouds are always dark and broody.
····clouds—buttoning her coat from the bottom
“Real poetry is to lead a beautiful life. To live poetry is better than to write it.” ~ Basho
Back in April I wrote a haiku inspired by Basho’s famous poem about the old frog. I’m not the first, but I might be a little fond of my own:
·····ice melting into
··········the sound of frogs
This time of year you can look through the woods and see everything missed in summer—brooks, houses, further fields. I saw an old shed I’d never seen before.
···in the old shed—the moon
··········in a puddle
39: December 15th 2015 | bottlecap
I’m watching my wife and daughters rehearsing the Christmas revels. I sit in the back row. The players are dressed in Scottish kilts and regalia. They sing a combination of Christmas carols and traditional Scottish tunes. I’ve always loved the unadorned music of the Irish and the Scots. Must be in my blood.
I see a little girl,
Across the street she skips.
I wonder who someday
Will be the one to kiss her lips.
I see a little boy
Who runs in circles round.
I wonder who she’ll be
Will turn his spinning upside down.
Let happiness be theirs
Though sorrow’s in every smile;
Their world be free of cares
If only for a little while.
I wrote this on the spur of the moment–tonight. And I can’t write anything that’s not a little bittersweet. I’ve been reading Buson’s haiku, different yet as memorable as Basho’s. They can be very simple–and sometimes deceptively so.
····the Milky Way—the roadway
Once again I’ve come home too late at night. I may sleep in a little, again.
37: December 13th 2015 | bottlecap
- Today’s post marks one month of writing haiku/haibun. I hope all of you are enjoying them; and my thanks to all who have commented. At first, I was only going to write haiku, but they readily became haibun. Now, as I begin to understand the form, I already imagine ways to more expansively explore it.
buds in December—
····the old tree·dreams of another
I’ve been meaning to cut down an old maple. There’s one branch left. I go out but change my mind. Though winter is arriving, the limb is already blackened by buds.
31: December 7th 2015 | bottlecap
We journeyed to the south today. Out for Christmas shopping. The morning began as the season’s most beautiful. Low clouds in the valleys left the trees a brilliant white, especially beautiful above the green grass and the copper of their fallen leaves.
······frost—trees floating above the valley’s
We travelled south over the White River then out of the clouds in Pomfret. The field’s brittle golden rod, wild parsnip, yarrow, meadowsweet, Queen Anne’s lace and aster were bursting with tufts of sunlit frost.
·····December’s wildflowers must also
Further south along Route 100, the road rises skyward until the vast expanse of the Greens laces the horizon. A lone farmhouse overlooked the valley and I wondered at the beauty of the view—and also the loneliness.
30: December 6th 2015
····three days of rain—the spotless
29: December 5th 2015 | bottlecap
I woke last night, sometime in the early morning, and saw the moon through the frosted window. Over the motionless field it seemed especially bright.