Also in this issue, translations
with Stephen Miller
Mysteries of the Corn God
On this lake presentations of his sufferings are made by night;
the Egyptians call them mysteries. About these things I have seen
there is much to be told, but let secrets be kept.
The second grade came to the bakery
to learn about bread,
then charged shrieking past me out the door,
each kid clutching a buttered rusk.
Hold on tight, little refugees.
If no priest sacrifices you
to make the young stalks grow,
as the old belief was and is,
maybe after fifty years
you'll understand better than I do:
why or how every ungrateful morning
those beaten elements can wake up drunk
from a mash of spent grist, strap
onto themselves salt, yeast, and heat
and climb to the marketplace to explode.
I thought my mother gave me words,
because she loved and brandished words
between the smoker's ash of her laughs
and her narrative sighs, audible
at the back of the house like those
of any really good tragedienne.
So when the time came, it was her
interesting chromosomes I thanked
in those places acknowledgements
and never mentioned the father
whose words to me seemed dull
Not until I learned
how the world is built between its poles
did I understand that he also helped
fund that cursive fountain in me:
by laying the Y of his ice
next to her X of fire.
gives you authority to speak? Who
died and crowned your head? Where
in hell do you get off?,
asked an undermining spirit named Mara
one day as I sat to write, in a hoarse baritone
just like my mother's at the end, when
from her curtained bed she spat by now
I shouldn't be surprised at your pompous side,
how you puff out your chest when you talk
only by luck not her last words.
Who gives me right?
No teacher, not anymore;
not my father, who spoke few words,
none of the judges who choose
whose words to set in type,
and nobody's notion of god.
But from long practice
noticing what I was told not to notice,
practice touching my forehead
to the bellies of forbidden strangers in the dark,
practice extending sympathetic embassies toward everything
low and dangerous in myself,
I'm able at last to point, oh happy fault,
at the germ of my authority
the chafe that bled a pearl
in you, mother,
as I forgive the carbon
of your shadow in myself, my dear
and mortal adversary.
My Mother Tries to Quit
My mother is an animal of smoke.
I'll do better now, her message says,
I'm not strong but
I'll be better now.
My mother's house is sixty years of smoke,
the box she sent exhaled what she inhaled,
the book in the box exhaled her breath,
the poems in the book exhaled her breath,
the poems she wasn't strong enough to speak aloud,
she sent to me, still smoking.
Finally, she said, I could hold it in my hand,
but couldn't inhale.
The book was Yeats;
I put him in the window to breathe.
The Truth about the Way and the Life
What if the way cheap tape
was stuck to her cheek to hold the ventilator
what if the way that tape chafed that cheek,
and left white crap there
like when you can't get a label completely off
and after, the gum draws every kind of dirt to itself,
so you can hardly stand to look at the thing,
it's ruined for you
what if the way a nurse said no, there's no other way to hold it
what if holding it there was something
about which she had suddenly changed her long-standing written order,
witnessed and notarized in rooms where breathing was easier
what if the way she wrote 911 over and over into his palm
after they had already brought her as far as those numbers can take you
what if the way her mind gave way
in fury at giving way,
she who was prouder of nothing
than the way she knew and thought
what if the battle that ensued,
the ugly dial tone interrupting
wasn't just the way she died
but the way we do
Crying the Divine Name in Arabic on Highway 80
Bismillah leaning away from the demon hauling gas;
Bismillah seducing the governor over seventy-seven miles per hour:
Bismillah threading every narrow gap; with every frail thing we hope
crossing high over the Susquehanna bolting through her gorge, flooded and muddy:
Bismillah after a longed-for piss, then again to wash my hands; Bismillah
sweetening my speech, too often ironic, certain, barking and large for our little cab:
In That Name,
In That subtly vibrating, taken-for-granted-and-in-vain Name
lifting our fat bag every night from the truck,
lifting spoons of soup to our fond, humid mouths:
Bismillah that ever we met; Bismillah on tiptoe of duty and dread
at the door of your mother's slow succumbing:
Bismillah Who slipped the world dripping and perfect onto its mighty hinge:
Bismillah Who put me delicate in my mother's pocket:
Alhumdulillah when we accomplish
as we sleep the years-sought hush of the other and the other's breath:
Bismillah for dangers I expect,
Bismillah for dangers I dream not of:
for dumb creatures, crossing safely or not
(oh poor meat, poor pelt, Bismillah):
one moment after the crack-up that tears me
however it must out of us
(though not now, not soon, not crash
anywhere along here in the wet ditch)blown and broken
apart from this rough praise, God willing Bismillah
and not shit the final cry I make
Author's note to Mysteries of the Corn God and Other Poems:
Four of these poems (Received Wisdom, Mudra, My Mother Tries to Quit, and The Truth about the Way and the Life,) are from an extended sequence about my mother, who died in May of 2005. I've provisionally titled this work-in-progress, in my own mind at least, with the German word MutterkreisMother Cycle thinking of Schumann's Liederkreis, a song cycle I sang in college. Even as I give the sequence this title, I imagine the voice of my best poetry buddy Adrian Blevins asking, as she often does about some aspect of the new poems I show her: Is there a way this could be in English? The answer to that is yes, probablybut for now let's call it Mutterkreis, because of how the word Kreis, even though it means cycle or circle, sounds like crisis. And though I'm sure Germans are fully capable of writing sentimental poems about their mothers, the word Mutter, to my American ears, sounds usefully like mud, mutt, muttering and all things harsh, vulgar and vividly Anglo-Saxon. Just the kind of sound one needs to keep poems about one's mother on the up-and-up.
The title of Mudra, as I hope is at least a little clear from the context of the poem, is a Sanskrit word that refers to the symbolic hand gestures in representations of the Buddha and other Buddhist and Hindu saints. Likewise, the name Mara in the same poem is a reference to the mythological character who acts as adversary or tempter in several Buddhist stories.
PATRICK DONNELLY's collection of poems is The Charge (Ausable Press, 2003), about which Gregory Orr wrote . . . everything he writes is suffused with tenderness and intelligence, lucidity and courage. He is an Associate Editor at Four Way Books, and has taught writing at Smith College, the New School University, Clark University, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He was Thornton writer-in-residence at Lynchburg College for Spring, 2006. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, The Marlboro Review, and have been anthologized in the Four Way Reader #2, The Book of Irish American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present, and elsewhere. From the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, he received a scholarship in 2003 and a fellowship in 2004, and grants from the PEN Fund for Writers in 2000 and 2001. Donnelly teaches writing workshops and coaches writers to give public readings; for more information, or to schedule a workshop near you, contact him at PatrickSDonnelly@aol.com