A BETTER HEART

1. Alex

I'm always knocking into you
Not mine the blue Caribbean,
Cerulean skies, and promises
Of perfect weather; I would wreck the stays,

And blunder, still complaining, through a storm;
You'd have to rescue both of us,
As if just taking care of you was not enough.

You used to have a weakness for the strays,
A gentleness the sea roughed out of you.
It wasn't easy being in your crew;
We had to fight the hurricanes,
And scrape off barnacles that dragged us down.

A private harbor in the crowd,
Our anchors catch the bight;
Our hulls are worn; we run aground,
And scrape together in the night.

Gaithersburg, Md
2006

2. The Polymath

I think that I shall seldom see
A person smart as -- well, as me.
Clear abstract thinking is my forte,
Philosophy and math, of course,
String Theory, Mozart, DNA,
Whatever patterns come my way
In English lit. or Chinese art,
I've learned them all, by fits and starts.

Oh, did I also mention that
I translate poems in nothing flat
From Latin, French, or Japanese?
(But only into English, please.)
In any tongue I'll get the gist,
For I'm a cunning linguist.
In short, my faculties are many,
Though I'm not real good at any.

But I believe it's true, however
Good you are at what you do,
There's probably some thing, whatever,
That I'm better at than you.

Montgomery Village, Maryland
April, 2006

3. Flowers

When I was young, I understood that fleurs
Would not outlive the freshness of their Spring;
It did not seem to bother me much, then,
For new ones always came the following year.

I couldn't know that tougher blooms would live,
And that some weeds who scattered souvenirs
Across a plain of early memories
Would seem more vital, now, than those more near.

I wonder what they look like as they fade,
The ones that soon or later flew away,
The ones I locked apart within my breast,

And covered like a precious palimpsest
With pictures of themselves from earlier days
On which a stranger's visage is impressed.

Montgomery Village, Md
August 1, 2009

4. The Matchbox
For Cathy Greiner and Steve Tainer

Some time ago, when we were all in school,
A friend, who had just broken with his girl,
Gave me her painted matchbox to return --
Passing her on to me, in other words.

Her face was rounded like the harvest moon,
Her smiling cheeks Mediterranean;
The little painted matchbox did its part,
And gave to our affair a certain spark.

Our senior year was over all too soon.
We wound up nearly half a world apart:
"Come back and visit, for the Holidays."

Spent my last dime - you guessed it - on a date,
A First Class ticket; should have gone with Coach.
She didn't really love me, all that much.

Montgomery Village, Md
August 11, 2009

5. A Family Portrait

5.1 Hide The Thimble

From open skies a fierce and gentle rain
Is coaxing flowers from the pyramids.
Won't you come out and play? But Gram and Gramps
Can't hear me underneath the grass;
I'm here to leave some flowers on their grave.

The rain anoints a consecrated place
For those who loved a bashful little kid,
Against all odds; and so I loved them too,
The kindest people that I ever knew;
But from that precious time, so long ago,

Don't think that you're forgotten - it's not true!
Inside my heart, just as we used to do,
I still can find the thimble that you hid.
When I am dead, I hope some relative
Will miss me half as much as I miss you.

Montgomery Village, Md
August 29, 2009

5.2 Memorial Day

A map of his campaigns hung on the wall
Inside his lab; my sister has it now,
The Adrienne in 1945.
He never spoke about that battleground,
And what it cost a soldier to survive.

It's harder now, when wars aren't always won,
To pledge allegiance to the USA.
Back then, you got a Bible and a gun;
Perhaps things aren't that different today.

After the war, my father loved to play
With all the toys and gadgets that he bought
To fill our living room on Christmas Day.
We were so young, we never gave a thought
To what a price his generation paid.

Montgomery Village, Md
May 31, 2010

5.3 Anniversary

My mother did her duty in the war,
Dancing with officers and privates too,
God bless the USO: shy as she was,
She had her pick, and joyfully picked you.

I can't begin to tell you how they loved,
A fairy-tale from out an old Romance;
He sang to her, together as they moved,
With melting hearts, the first time that they danced;

From then until the day my father died,
They lived together, raised our family,
And in their fullness faded into time.

They loved us both, but loved each other best;
When evening falls, it still amazes me
To hear again my parents' sweet duet.

Montgomery Village, Md
August 25, 2010

6. A Martyr, by Charles Baudelaire

Among the scented vials, gilded robes,
Statues of marble, and the perfumed cloth
That trails upon her in licentious folds,
Her dying flowers exhale a fatal breath.

Her headless body pours its living blood
In rivulets upon the marble floor,
And her discarded, separated head
Turns up its eyes to the heaven she adored.

She shamelessly reveals upon her bed
Her sex to every casual passer-by,
But she can't help it! For the girl is dead,
And must endure the taunting as she lies,

Of those who desecrate her with a glance,
And trample on her ruined innocence.
She was too young, when some unlucky man
Swore to be faithful, even unto death.

Montgomery Village, Md
September 30, 2009

7. The Cheese Stands Alone

My father was a scientist,
Beat him at chess when I was three;
My mother was a classicist,
But couldn't find the words for me.

I hugged my sister to my breast,
But she grew up and I got lost,
Became a stranger to my friends,
And casually blew off my boss;

Relationships I once approved
Slipped all away like shifting sand,
And every woman that I loved
Got married to some other man;

The woman that I loved the best
Dropped out from college, and my life,
And even now - you know the rest -
Her memory haunts the words I write.

Montgomery Village, Md
February 2, 2011

8. A Better Heart

In childhood, Nature freely shed
The light of Reason on my head;
I loved to gather golden stars,
But never understood my heart.

From adolescence slipping free,
I dreamed of immortality,
But lacked a compass point to chart
The yearning caverns of my heart.

Too soon I reached those middle days
When young ideals slip away:
The passing of a youthful spark,
The disappointments of my heart.

I faded older, sixty three,
And took a walk, when suddenly
I felt a pain inside my heart;
The surgeons split my chest apart.

My sister came to do her part;
She held my hand, and kept me fed;
I'm thought to have a better head,
But Nancy has the better heart.

Montgomery Village, Md
Septermber 13, 2011

9. Two Nocturnes

(1)

Some people think that sleep's a little death;
Not me; my taste of death comes in the morning,
Aching still, too tired to get up.
I never sleep; God knows I wish I could;
Sleep is not death; it's just oblivion.

(2)

Where is it that you go when you're asleep?
Sometimes I dream that I am back in school,
And late for class, or wander through the quad,
The bookstore, and the dorm, but always
Walking up and down, and searching, searching.

Montgomery Village, Md
October 10, 2011

10. Non Sine Honore

et dicebat eis Iesus quia non est propheta sine honore nisi in patria sua

I gave you every precious thing I had,
Most recently, the poems of Fleurs du Mal,
Freshly translated, closest to my soul:
A hundred pages you're the first to read.

But in reply, what good encouragement?
Nothing! Ignored! The cut direct, indeed.
- I think I need to find another friend,
Someone who cares a little more for me,

Or just can fake it more convincingly.
A thank-you, Lucian, would have been polite.
I don't know any longer what you like;
Apparently it's not my poetry.

If you don't care to view the cast-off skin
Of Michael Angelo, what's that to me?
These days you'll find me in a darkened gym,
Lifting a weight that any fool can see.

Montgomery Village, Md
February 18, 2012

11. Damon Answers The Critics

When Marvell wrote me, I was very young,
Naive, unfallen, and unschooled in love;
I think that I was, then, an innocent.

You call me with your voice a Peter Pan,
Anachronist! I nothing know of that.
Will you torment me even now I'm dead?

I cannot weep, nor answer for myself,
But still you flay me with absurd attacks.
I'm not a critic, I just mow the grass!

What have I learned? Only what Marvell knew:
The scythe is reaping every one of us.
That's all there is; alas! it's not enough.

Montgomery Village, Md
March 18, 2012

12. King of the World

If I were king of all the world,
I'd come up with a better plan;
My friends would never need to work,
We'd revel in a golden span.

I'd have myself a lot more fun,
And be a little smarter, and I'd spend
More time with everyone
Who loved me, and we'd all be young.

To violent and evil men
I'd give the justice they require,
And if they still refused to mend
I'd throw their bodies on the fire.

Punish the bad, reward the good,
I'd do it -- if I only could.

Montgomery Village, Md.
July 14, 2012

13. RONDEL CLXXV, by Charles d'Orélans

(Le conte de Clermont.)

I hoard a treasure of regrets
That my beloved left to me,
And hide it deep within my chest,
A coin of vanished memories.

I guard her honor, even though
She won't consent to rescue me.
She's gone away, however close
To her indulgence that I feel.

Alas! My sorrow could not move
A heart that only wanted rest;
Long I have cried at her remove,
And hoard a treasure of regrets.

(Responce d'Orléans.)

It is a dangerous expense
To hoard a treasure of regrets:
The man who buries them inside
Will eat his heart, unsatisfied.

The deeper that a secret lies,
The more it suppurates, exposed;
It is a dangerous expense
To hoard a treasure of regrets.

O friend, it is no bad advice
To love the day, and let it go.
It is a dangerous expense
To hoard a treasure of regrets.

Montgomery Village, Md.
September 14, 2012

14. Hommages, by Stephane Mallarme

(1) The Tomb of Edgar Poe

Forever changed at last into himself,
The Poet rouses with a naked sword
A century to fear, that never heard
Death's exaltation in his eldritch words.

It made the critics squirm to hear this angel
Purify the language of the horde;
Invidiously they hooted that his verse
Was conjured up from drink or drugs, or worse.

No words are placed upon his cenotaph
That separates the hostile earth from sky:
Calm, and adorned by nothing other than

Itself, like some great meteor it stands,
A monument to ward his memory
From the black flights of future blasphemy.

Montgomery Village, MD
Spring 2004

(2) Hommage to Richard Wagner

The silence of the grave is settling
With silken folds upon the used-up props:
Collapse the mainstay, strike the circus tent,
Forget the past, and be in turn forgotten.

Let's dump them all, our old triumphal spells,
The verses that we loosed upon the wing;
The notes of Wagner leap up off the vellum,
Golden trumpets blare, the Poet sings!

With mocking smiles they deprecate his plays,
But Richard Wagner shows us Ragnarok;
He gestures, and destroys the world we knew;

He'll have no truck with idols made of clay,
For he's the new god; his prophetic sobs
Bode ill for every critic, and for you.

Montgomery Village, MD
October 2004

(3) The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire

A buried temple vomits from its gate
Rubies and mud, the slime from Charon's sewer.
An idol of the carrion god Anubis
Howls like a savage with a burning face.

Wherever gaslight wrings a shady wick,
The Poet feels an old familiar itch -
He's far from home, and drowning in a ditch
Of dissipation, flowing fast and thick.

What dried sachets in rooms that never sleep
Intoxicate like all the flowers that weep
Upon the cenotaph of Baudelaire?

Corruption hidden in a marble grate,
His very shade exudes a poisoned air
That we must breathe, although we suffocate.

Montgomery Village, Md
July 30, 2005

15. A Balatta by Francesco Landini, S. 138, per Judy Collins

Lasso! Di Donna

Alas! I love in vain a vain lady,
Who puts me off with lies and flattery.
She gives me hope, but leaves me only pain,
And everything she swears is treachery.

It hurts me so much, how her changing love
I chased so long my very hair has changed,
That once was black, into a dirty grey.
In her cold heart there's nothing left to prove,
But her sweet promises and lovely face
Make me surrender to her slighting grace.

Too well I know her, and her faithless mind;
But still, my foolish heart, not satisfied,
Can touch, but cannot ever keep, her favor;
I bite my thumb at every passing lover.

Montgomery Village, Md
September 4, 2004

16. Road Trip

When I was just a child, our family hit the road
Most every June; "Go-go," they said I said,
And so we went, across and up and down
The U.S.A., and making frequent stops
For everything of note along the way -
Old Ironsides, kettles in Salem Town,
The Everglades and Weeki Wachee Springs,
The mesas of America's Southwest,
Old Faithful and the blue of Glacier Park,
Route 66 from Gary to the coast.
And everywhere we bought our souvenirs,
And took our photographs, and movies too.
Along the road, the signs and billboards marked
Motels and diners, gas and Burma-Shave,
The big and little sights along the way.
The road was still a work in progress then,
But much the same idea as today.

Fifty years later, fleeing from a storm,
I found myself upon the road again,
And wanted, yes, to see most everything -
The Luray Caverns, Shenandoah sites,
The battlefields of Civil War renown -
New Market, Cedar Creek, and Shepherdstown,
The hills of Monticello, vineyards in Cross Keys,
The house of James Monroe in Charlottesville,
The Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee;
But I had seen those things, or most of them,
When I was young, a long long time ago.
Snow in the mountains, rain across the road.

Near Lexington NC, a roadside stop
Commemorated Carolina's vets,
Two hundred thousand, and the half percent
Who never made it home, a monument
Upon whose bricks their names are written plain.
I thought to stop there, but I passed it by,
For after all it was not on my list.

There is an eidolon inside my head -
Just one of many, for that's all we are -
It's self-contained, and loops autonomous.
An eidolon, rejected, feels the pain
That we experience on its behalf,
When we reject a thing that's part of us,
As if a soldier whispered in the rain,
"This is my monument; I suffered much;
Will you not even pause to read my name?"
There is an eidolon inside my head.

"What is your hurry?" was ever their refrain
Back when my dad and mom were still alive.
I hurried on - to what I never knew,
Until just lately. Now I'm old enough
To want to bid the present moment stay,
Though habits of a lifetime make it tough.

But if you're sick, and weary of the play,
Jump in your car and drive. There's always something
New to see, unless you're getting old,
Too hard to please, and tired of the road.

Montgomery Village, Md
November 3, 2012

17. Bradamante's Dream, by Ludovico Ariosto
(Orlando Furioso, Canto XXXIII, verse LXIII, lines 454-461)

When I was young, I dreamed of endless peace,
But bitter waking turned me back to war;
We marched for love, and thought it possible,
And tried to save the earth, but here we are.
When truth is hateful, only dreams may please;
I'll nothing hate but truth, forevermore.
If death is peace, and waking only pain,
Then let me sleep, and never wake again.

Silver Spring, Md
August 22, 2016