Issue 1:2 | Poetry | Carl Dennis
The way up, from here to there, may be closed,
But the way down, from there to here, still open
Wide enough for a slender god like Hermes
To slip from the clouds if you give your evenings
To 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 stay
So full of the comforts of home he won't forget it,
To build him a shrine he finds congenial,
Something as simple as roofed pillars
Without the darkness of an interior.
If you're lucky, he'll want to sit on the steps
Under the stars for as long as you live
And sniff the fragrance of wine and barely
As it blows from the altar on a salty sea breeze.
He'll want, when you die, to offer his services
As a guide on the shadowy path to the underworld.
Not till you reach the watery crossing
Will he leave your side, and even then
He'll shout instructions as you slip from your shoes
And wade alone into that dark river.
"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 anyone
Can expect you to spare, and in ten years' time
You may find you've outgrown your earlier hankering
For your neighbor's house, though his is brick
And yours is clapboard, though his contains a family.
Ten years of effort and finally it's simple justice
To reward yourself with a token of self-approval.
Stand tall as you linger this evening
In the sweater section of Kaufmann's Department Store
By the case for men not afraid of extravagance.
All will go well if you hold your focus steady
On what's before you and cast no covetous eye
On the middle-aged man across the aisle
In women's accessories as he converses quietly
With his teenaged son.  The odds are slim
They're going to reach agreement about a gift
Likely 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 son
Long-haired, with a ring in his ear and a shirt
That might have been worn by a Vandal chieftain
When he torched a town at the edge of the Empire.
This moment you covet is only a truce
In a lifelong saga of border warfare
While each allows the other with a shake of the head
To veto a possibility as they slowly progress
From umbrellas to purses, from purses to gloves
In search of something bright for the darker moments
When the woman realizes her life with them
Is the only life she'll be allotted.
It's only you who assumes the relief on their faces
When they hold a scarf to the light and nod
Will last.  The boy will have long forgotten this moment
Years from now when the woman he's courting
Asks him to name a happy time with his dad,
A time of peaceable parley amidst the turmoil.
So why should you remember?  Think how angry
You'll be at yourself tomorrow if you let their purchase
Make you unhappy with yours, ashamed
Of a sweater on sale that fits you well,
Gray-blue, your favorite color.
The approval they get from above is all they need,
So why should they care if they offend me
Here 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 back
When they're looking for disapproval.  No reason
For them to obey the rules of one of the ignorant
Who supposes the perpetual dusk he lives in
Sunny noon.  Their business is with my soul,
However buried, with my unvoiced wish for the truth
Too soft for me to catch over the street noise.
Should I rest my packages on my car a minute
And try to listen if I'm sure they really believe
They're vexing me in my own best interest?
To them I'm the loser they used to be
When they sweated daily to please themselves,
Deaf to their real wishes.  Why make it easy for me
To load the trunk of my car with grocery bags
When they offer a joy that none of my purchases,
However free of impurities, can provide?
Their calls to attention shouldn't sound any more threatening
Than the peal of a church bell.  And if I call
On the car phone to lodge a complaint
Jail will seem to them the perfect place to bear witness
In this dark dominion where Herod rules.
In jail, but also guests at a banquet, while I,
They're certain, stubbornly stand outside
Shivering in the snow, too proud
To enter a hall not of my own devising
And warm myself at a fire I didn't light
And enjoy a meal strangers have taken pains with.
Yes, the table's crowded, but there's room for me.
When my tastes seem too haphazard and disjointed
To compose a character, it's a comfort
To think of them as inherited from my ancestors,
Each expressing through me ancient inflections.
My need before supper to stroll to the reservoir
May indicate on my father's side nomadic origins,
The blood of a captive from Scythia who was sold
To a family in Lombardy in need of a plowman.
His marriage to a slave girl from Carthage
Explains why sea air smells so familiar,
Why I like the look of whitewashed houses on hillsides
And painted tile from Tunisia or Morocco.
To be a vehicle for the dead to speak through,
Surely that's an improvement over being a showman
Who 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 stories
At a moment's notice in the style of Odysseus
All the way back on my mother's side
To a black-bearded Smyrna merchant.
His skill makes me star at the tourist bureau
When I'm asked for ideas to make Lake Erie
More glamorous than it is in the current brochures,
The photographs more arresting, the copy spicier.
Good thing for the tourists I've also inherited
Truth-telling genes from the Hebrew prophets
That keep me from claiming our seagulls special,
As musical as the nightingale and as retiring.
So many dispositions, but no reason to worry
About 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 poems
Under 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 twin
Misplaced at birth in shorthanded village hospital.
How else explain that a poem of his
Is nearer to me than the proverbs of seven uncles?
Witness the first haiku in the new translation
I bought this morning at Niagara Books:
"Even in Kyoto, hearing the cuckoo's cry,
I long for Kyoto."
Two hands may not always be better than one,
But four feet and more are likely to prove
More steady than two as we wade a stream
Holding above our heads the ark
Of 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 evening
Are closer than one to the truth if we lift our glasses
To the poet that Mac proposes
We toast before beginning, Li Po.
Three votes that the poem I've brought is finished
Versus one turn of the head too slight
For anyone not on the watch to notice
As 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 dust
In Szechwan Province though somehow
Still 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 them
The context that they deserve and speak them
Without misgivings and with greater gusto.
Five lead out from the kitchen
Past a dozen detours to a single bridge
That must be crossed in order to reach a homeland
Eager for my arrival.
This is the message I get from a prophet whose signs
Are a threadbare coat and an empty cupboard,
Proof he's never written for anyone but himself
And the dead teachers easy to count
On the stiff fingers of one hand.
                        In memory of Mac Hammond
Carl Dennis
from Practical Gods