The way up, from here to there, may be closed,But the way down, from there to here, still openWide enough for a slender god like HermesTo slip from the clouds if you give your eveningsTo learning about the plants under his influence,The winged and wingless creature, the rocks and metals,And practice his sacred flute or dulcimer.No prayers. Just the effort to make his staySo full of the comforts of home he won't forget it,To build him a shrine he finds congenial,Something as simple as roofed pillarsWithout the darkness of an interior.If you're lucky, he'll want to sit on the stepsUnder the stars for as long as you liveAnd sniff the fragrance of wine and barelyAs it blows from the altar on a salty sea breeze.He'll want, when you die, to offer his servicesAs a guide on the shadowy path to the underworld.Not till you reach the watery crossingWill he leave your side, and even thenHe'll shout instructions as you slip from your shoesAnd wade alone into that dark river.
DEPARTMENT STORE"Thou shalt not covet," hardest of the Commandments,Is listed last so the others won't be neglected.An hour a day of practice is all that anyoneCan expect you to spare, and in ten years' timeYou may find you've outgrown your earlier hankeringFor your neighbor's house, though his is brickAnd yours is clapboard, though his contains a family.Ten years of effort and finally it's simple justiceTo reward yourself with a token of self-approval.Stand tall as you linger this eveningIn the sweater section of Kaufmann's Department StoreBy the case for men not afraid of extravagance.All will go well if you hold your focus steadyOn what's before you and cast no covetous eyeOn the middle-aged man across the aisleIn women's accessories as he converses quietlyWith his teenaged son. The odds are slimThey're going to reach agreement about a giftLikely to please the woman they live with,Not with the clash in what they're wearing,The father dapper in sport coat and tie, the sonLong-haired, with a ring in his ear and a shirtThat might have been worn by a Vandal chieftainWhen he torched a town at the edge of the Empire.This moment you covet is only a truceIn a lifelong saga of border warfareWhile each allows the other with a shake of the headTo veto a possibility as they slowly progressFrom umbrellas to purses, from purses to glovesIn search of something bright for the darker momentsWhen the woman realizes her life with themIs the only life she'll be allotted.It's only you who assumes the relief on their facesWhen they hold a scarf to the light and nodWill last. The boy will have long forgotten this momentYears from now when the woman he's courtingAsks him to name a happy time with his dad,A time of peaceable parley amidst the turmoil.So why should you remember? Think how angryYou'll be at yourself tomorrow if you let their purchaseMake you unhappy with yours, ashamedOf a sweater on sale that fits you well,Gray-blue, your favorite color.
JESUS FREAKSThe approval they get from above is all they need,So why should they care if they offend meHere in the parking lot of the Super Duper, my arms full,By stuffing a pamphlet or two in my pocket?No point in shouting at them to keep backWhen they're looking for disapproval. No reasonFor them to obey the rules of one of the ignorantWho supposes the perpetual dusk he lives inSunny noon. Their business is with my soul,However buried, with my unvoiced wish for the truthToo soft for me to catch over the street noise.Should I rest my packages on my car a minuteAnd try to listen if I'm sure they really believeThey're vexing me in my own best interest?To them I'm the loser they used to beWhen they sweated daily to please themselves,Deaf to their real wishes. Why make it easy for meTo load the trunk of my car with grocery bagsWhen they offer a joy that none of my purchases,However free of impurities, can provide?Their calls to attention shouldn't sound any more threateningThan the peal of a church bell. And if I callOn the car phone to lodge a complaintJail will seem to them the perfect place to bear witnessIn this dark dominion where Herod rules.In jail, but also guests at a banquet, while I,They're certain, stubbornly stand outsideShivering in the snow, too proudTo enter a hall not of my own devisingAnd warm myself at a fire I didn't lightAnd enjoy a meal strangers have taken pains with.Yes, the table's crowded, but there's room for me.
BASHOWhen my tastes seem too haphazard and disjointedTo compose a character, it's a comfortTo think of them as inherited from my ancestors,Each expressing through me ancient inflections.My need before supper to stroll to the reservoirMay indicate on my father's side nomadic origins,The blood of a captive from Scythia who was soldTo a family in Lombardy in need of a plowman.His marriage to a slave girl from CarthageExplains why sea air smells so familiar,Why I like the look of whitewashed houses on hillsidesAnd painted tile from Tunisia or Morocco.To be a vehicle for the dead to speak through,Surely that's an improvement over being a showmanWho shifts his costume to please a moody audience.It's a comfort as long as I've many dead to choose from.Free to trace my talent for telling storiesAt a moment's notice in the style of OdysseusAll the way back on my mother's sideTo a black-bearded Smyrna merchant.His skill makes me star at the tourist bureauWhen I'm asked for ideas to make Lake ErieMore glamorous than it is in the current brochures,The photographs more arresting, the copy spicier.Good thing for the tourists I've also inheritedTruth-telling genes from the Hebrew prophetsThat keep me from claiming our seagulls special,As musical as the nightingale and as retiring.So many dispositions, but no reason to worryAbout caulking and splicing them into unity.Each ancient voice asks to be kept distinct,A separate species of tree in a crowded forest,Cedar and pine, oak, ash, and cherry.It isn't an accident, as I sit in the yard reading poemsUnder the hemlock, that I'm drawn to Basho.It's clear that his blood flows in my veins,Clear he's my father or else my twinMisplaced at birth in shorthanded village hospital.How else explain that a poem of hisIs nearer to me than the proverbs of seven uncles?Witness the first haiku in the new translationI bought this morning at Niagara Books:"Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoo's cry,I long for Kyoto."
NUMBERSTwo hands may not always be better than one,But four feet and more are likely to proveMore steady than two as we wade a streamHolding above our heads the arkOf our covenant with the true and beautiful,A crowd of outlaw pagans hot on our heels,The shades of our ancestors cheering us on.Three friends with poems at Mac's this eveningAre closer than one to the truth if we lift our glassesTo the poet that Mac proposesWe toast before beginning, Li Po.Three votes that the poem I've brought is finishedVersus one turn of the head too slightFor anyone not on the watch to noticeAs Li Po demurs.Is this America, land of one man, one vote,I want to ask, or the China of one-man rule,Of emperors who believe they're gods?Li Po, now only a thin layer of dustIn Szechwan Province though somehowStill standing inches behind his words.Five of my lines, he suggests with a nod,Out of the score I've written,Are fine as they are if I provide themThe context that they deserve and speak themWithout misgivings and with greater gusto.Five lead out from the kitchenPast a dozen detours to a single bridgeThat must be crossed in order to reach a homelandEager for my arrival.This is the message I get from a prophet whose signsAre a threadbare coat and an empty cupboard,Proof he's never written for anyone but himselfAnd the dead teachers easy to countOn the stiff fingers of one hand.In memory of Mac HammondCarl Dennisfrom Practical Gods